This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
From presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, figures who openly call themselves “democratic socialists” dominate much of the discussion within the Democratic Party. How did this happen? How has America gone from a nation in which socialist arguments are on the fringe to one in which they are the topic of mainstream debate?
Part of the answer may be that today’s socialists downplay its more obvious Marxian excesses (to say nothing of its bloody history). Even Bernie Sanders has stopped calling for government ownership of the means of production. Today’s socialism entails a managed economy, one that is, at least ostensibly, in private hands, while being guided by tax policies, prohibitions, and demands from the administrative state. (Here one often hears laudatory invocations of Denmark or Sweden.) Thanks to work by Cass Sunstein and others, socialists have been able effectively to recast socialism as mere “nudging” by friendly administrators to help people choose what they ought to want and do. Socialism is outsourced to private industry.
But outsourced socialism remains essentially socialist. The government still controls how things are produced, by whom, and at what prices, as well as controlling who consumes how much of what. It is part of the same movement toward ever-more government control over citizens’ lives, as evidenced by the so-called Green New Deal, which would go beyond even the ungainly welfare states of Europe’s “democratic socialist” countries.
Why does this re-branded socialism seem to appeal to a significant portion of the electorate?
For generations, now, our young people have been taught that government administrators know better than the people who build businesses, employ people, grow our food, and make things that can improve our lives. But the problem goes deeper than bad education. The problem is what has happened to us, and to our society, after decades of “nudging.”
This brings us to the most important reason for socialism’s resurgence: In a word, loneliness. More Americans are susceptible to the allure of socialism because more of us find ourselves adrift, looking for meaning, purpose, and belonging in the world. It would be easy to caricature this statement as a mere appeal to emotions. But I’m referring to loneliness not just as an emotion state but as an objective one — Marxists would call it “alienation” — of being disconnected from the natural associations in which people learn to lead flourishing lives together.
Commentators have lamented for years now that the rising generation seems incapable of, well, rising. It may be easy to make fun of young people for demanding “safe spaces” from ideas they find objectionable or bristling at “microaggressions” or requiring classes in “adulting” or failing to leave home for college or to find productive work or moving back in with their parents after graduation. But the situation is serious. Nor is the crisis of loneliness restricted to young people. Americans, including young adults and middle-aged people, are dying in increasing numbers from addictions and suicides.
Sociologist Robert Nisbet spent most of his career pointing out that all of us need community, and that if we can’t have the real thing, we’ll settle for false community — including that of political activism. Socialism appeals to many Americans because it promises a sense of belonging. The Green New Deal, like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, is a massive program intended to transform America; like the “war on poverty,” it promises a “war on global warming.” That is, it offers, not just free stuff, but a mission — a way of signaling virtue and a reason to join together to achieve something that many people find meaningful.
Where once we found a reason to live in daily life within our families, churches, and local associations, today increasing numbers of Americans look to large-scale and fanciful political projects to fill the void in their lives. That void was created when our families began breaking apart (or failing even to form), when our churches emptied (or became mere centers for political organizing), and when our local associations withered away (or became mere appendages of federal programs).
This deterioration of our civil institutions is dangerous because it raises the stakes in our national politics. When politics matters more than our families or communities, ideological arguments end up dominating every aspect of our lives. We may turn from friends to enemies or leave spouses over political disagreements. In the extreme, that way leads to political violence and the breakdown of republican government.
Political dominance of public life is also dangerous because it makes each of us more and more dependent on government for our well-being — for our health care, for financial support, for protection against the risks we all face in life, including the loss of jobs. We were not alone in facing these risks before the central government took on the role of our grand protector. We looked to people we knew, our communities, who often knew best what we needed to get back on our feet without stripping from us our dignity and capacity for self-help. Socialists and other centralizers, often motivated by a desire to help, have substituted bureaucratic structures for these human relationships. In the process, they have destroyed our natural associations and left us stranded and alone to face life’s challenges as wards of our parents (should they have the means and will to support us) or worse, dehumanized wards of the state.
There is no easy answer to our predicament. It has been taking shape over many decades. Today, our politics have become poisonous because we demand too much of them. And we demand too much of them because we have allowed political programs, under the guise of benevolent policies, to undermine the real relationships and communities in which we learn to take care of ourselves and our fellows.
As Nisbet pointed out, communities do not exist because people simply wish for companionship. Real communities exist because there is a concrete need for them. Families raise children, churches bring people together to praise God and follow His commandments. In Nisbet’s words, “Community is the product of people working together on problems, of autonomous and collective fulfillment of internal objectives, and of the experience of living under codes of authority which have been set in large degree by the persons involved.”
Large-scale, centralized government programs undermine community because they replace human relationships with bureaucratic structures. Often with the best of intentions, federal programs aimed at protecting us from life’s dangers, such as poverty and illness or injury and workplace accidents, have shunted aside the more organic, natural associations in which people come together to solve practical problems and help one another. We have been “socializing” America through top-down political programs for quite some time. And in the process we have been undermining the institutions essential for a free society. Americans are attracted to socialism today because they are less integrated into their real, organic communities than they once were.
None of this is to say that all programs, or even all federal programs, are by nature destructive. Nor is it to say that all natural associations are perfect or conducive to human flourishing. But it is important to prioritize those communities which, in Nisbet’s words, “thrive on self-help and also a little disorder.” This is why debates over policies such as work requirements for welfare benefits are so important. Opponents of such requirements deride them as offensive to human dignity. But quite the opposite is the case. Work requirements give aid recipients a reason to get up and out of the house in the morning. They also integrate recipients into their communities — recipients must work somewhere, with some specific group of people, and so interact with these people face to face, toward the common goal of accomplishing something. Human relationships are formed — a kind of “friendship of utility” as Aristotle called it — and people are brought out of themselves. To use contemporary jargon, contacts are made, networks developed, and potential jobs and other forms of assistance are made possible.
Welfare programs themselves have changed over time as the importance of local, face-to-face interactions has been forgotten. Not so long ago, individual counties had their own social services directors. Particular individuals were tasked with getting to know everyone in their area who relied on public support, finding out what they needed to get back on their feet and begin leading productive lives as full members of the community as they recovered from whatever trauma had put them on public assistance. Today, unfortunately, dependence on public assistance has become a way of life for all too many Americans, rather than a necessary and temporary form of support. The result is the impoverishment of those who become dependent as well as the communities they once enriched.
Nisbet called for “a new laissez-faire” that would allow local communities to rebuild purposive communities, controlling their own finances, rules, and procedures. The goal was to allow people to reconnect with one another in ways that actually mattered and that empowered them to govern themselves rather than leaving governance to distant elites in Washington. Given the increasing belligerence of our public discourse and the increasing isolation of our people — especially the most vulnerable among us — it is imperative that we be willing to give more power back to Americans in their local, natural associations so that they can rebuild meaningful lives for themselves and for the United States, which is, after all, a nation of communities.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Ella and Ernest Fisher Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University. His book with Ted. V. McAllister, Coming Home: Reclaiming America's Conservative Soul, will be published in May by Encounter Books.