Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in 2018. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The man behind the “libertarian moment” is doing his part to make sure a new socialist moment doesn’t follow. Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, has written a new book called The Case Against Socialism.
Not so long ago, it would have been unnecessary or an exercise in red-baiting for a sitting senator to publish such a volume. Socialism was last an electorally viable ideology in the early 20th century. Eugene Debs has been dead since 1926, Norman Thomas since 1968. Even if an idea with mainstream appeal arguably had a socialist pedigree, the use of the “s-word” would render it politically radioactive.
But in 2019, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who has for decades self-described as a socialist, is in the midst of his second consecutive Democratic presidential campaign. If Sanders falters, it will likely have more to do with his age and the rise of a less curmudgeonly progressive in the person of Elizabeth Warren than his socialism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also calls herself a socialist. The freshman New York Democrat leads “The Squad” and has become the political equivalent of a rock star.
Out with the Paul Ryan Roadmap, in with AOC’s Green New Deal. Even the ostensible centrists are getting into the act. “It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. It’s true that if we embrace a far left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” said Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. Let’s stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.”
It’s true that Republicans have been attacking “creeping socialism”—a term coined by Friedrich Hayek back in 1944—since at least the days of Dwight Eisenhower. But you would have to go all the way back to Henry Wallace to find a Democrat of serious national importance who wouldn’t run from the phrase screaming.
So for the first time in decades, it has become necessary to push back against the previously unthinkable. That’s why Paul, who has previously written books about partisan politics, over-government hurting ordinary people, and his rise through the Tea Party, has taken on this task. The senator has continued to champion fiscal conservatism even as it has fallen out of vogue inside the GOP and has tried to push Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign-policy instincts in a more consistently antiwar direction.
As if Paul didn’t have enough on his plate already battling the neocons inside his own party, he is now taking aim at Democratic socialists. “President Trump is right to be concerned about socialism coming to America,” he writes. “A recent Gallup poll indicates that 57 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism.”
Especially susceptible to socialism’s siren song? Young voters who grew up watching stock market crashes wipe out their parents’ retirement savings and who themselves have graduated from college already deeply in debt. Factor in rising health care costs eating into wage growth and the erosion steady lifetime jobs enjoyed in the post World War II era, and government seems less like the problem Ronald Reagan spoke of more like a solution.
There is also the matter of conflating capitalism with its cronyist variant, as big business and big government frequently work hand in glove. “Both the left and right were correct,” Paul writes of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street’s shared opposition to the big bank bailouts during the financial crisis. “The bailout was the very definition of crony capitalism.” Yet socialism, he argues, inevitably leads to cronyism itself.
Much of Paul’s book is devoted to pointing out that when socialism is taken to its most radical conclusions, it degenerates into starvation and death camps, not playing cute AOC videos on your iPhone or wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt on your college campus. Critics will undoubtedly quibble that the Democrats are advocating a New Deal liberalism on steroids that falls well short of communism or National Socialism. But the ideological underpinnings of capitalism are coming under new questioning, similar pushback against socialism is only—to use a word much beloved by socialists—fair.
“My hope is that the next generation will understand that free markets and free people have produced better health, longer life expectancy, and reduced poverty and suffering around the world,” Paul concludes. “My hope is that they will choose liberty.” A real social base and electoral coalition (as Paul, the winner of two elections and the son of a man elected to Congress three times as a non-incumbent, surely knows) as well as economics instruction and appeals to abstract principle. But The Case Against Socialism is a start.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.