24 November 2015

Socialism in America? Why people no longer fear it

Virtually every western constitutional democracy has one or more major parties claiming to represent the principles of socialism. Britain has its Labour Party, France has its Parti socialiste, and Germany has its Sozialdemokratische Partei. Even Canada, where I've lived for thirty years, has its own democratic socialist party, the New Democratic Party, which has governed half of Canada's provinces and managed to form the official opposition at the federal level between 2011 and this year. The NDP's first federal leader, Tommy Douglas (better known south of the border as actor Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather), is considered a national hero due to his role in establishing this country's system of universal health care.

But the United States is almost alone in lacking a functioning socialist party. There are many theories behind this absence, the Hartz-Horowitz thesis getting the most play in Canada. According to Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz, as people moved from Europe to the Americas, they brought with them only fragments of the full political cultures of their respective homelands. Furthermore, when the United Empire Loyalists left the newly independent American states in the 1780s, they robbed Americans of an older Tory tradition, leaving behind a lopsidedly liberal individualist society. Because Canadian Tories were more communitarian than individualist, they were open to another communitarian ideology, viz., socialism, while their American cousins were much less so. The late Seymour Martin Lipset discussed this issue in his book, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, adducing multiple causes for this American exceptionalism. Among the plausible reasons why socialism failed to make an impact in the U.S. may be the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in stealing the thunder of the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.

There were exceptions, of course. Milwaukee, with its German immigrant influence, had three Socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960. More recently, Congressman Ron Dellums, a professed socialist, served in the House of Representatives under the Democratic Party between 1971 and 1998, and as Mayor of Oakland, California, from 2007 to 2011. But these figures were at the margins of American political life.

Now there's Bernie Sanders, former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and currently Senator from the Green Mountain State since 2007. From my vantage point outside the country, I have been surprised that someone so ready to wear the socialist label has come so far in his quest for the White House. When I was growing up, Americans regarded socialism with a mixture of fear and bemusement. To be a socialist was to be unAmerican at the very best. Moreover, during much of the twentieth century, the socialist label was invoked by two of the most heinous and murderous political forces in history: national socialism, or nazism, and communism. If Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin could both claim to be implementing socialism in some fashion, and if we were rightly repulsed by their brutal treatment of so many millions of people, then any hint of bringing socialism to America could only elicit a sensible aversion to an ideology that had proved so obviously destructive elsewhere.

Why then have Americans lost their fear of socialists such that many are prepared to put one in the Oval Office? The major reason, I believe, is that the generation that lived through the totalitarian experiments of the last century is gradually passing from the scene. For the rising generation born after the Cold War's end, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany alike have joined the Roman and Ottoman empires as distant historical episodes outside their lived memories. Though many experienced observers were sounding the death knell for socialism in the 1990s, few political ideas — even bad ones — stay dead for good. For the older generations, the rhetoric of socialism may seem stale, but for younger people it may still carry a fresh scent, especially when joined to the winsome populism and iconoclasm of a Senator Sanders.

Yet despite Sanders' identification with a communitarian ideology, he does so very much as an individual, and in this he is still typically American. He could be the star of a Frank Capra film, struggling as a lone outsider against entrenched special interests for the good of the nation as a whole. Accordingly, we will not expect to hear a summons for the world's workers to unite and throw off their chains. Neither are we likely to see the establishment of a highly disciplined organization capable of commanding broad support for a socialist agenda. If socialism ever comes to America, it will arrive in severely diluted form as the rather idiosyncratic preoccupation of someone more resembling Jimmy Stewart than Lenin or Trotsky.

David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. Cross posted at First Thoughts.

17 November 2015

Abraham Kuyper and the 'bearer of principle'

What might Abraham Kuyper teach us as Americans prepare to go to the polls next year? I believe that he can help us to vote more intelligently by clarifying the true nature of representation in a democratic political community.

Canadians and Americans alike are blessed to live in representative democracies. Every two to four years we elect people to represent us – to govern on our behalf – in our legislative bodies. But what exactly is representation? Political scientists generally have two answers to this question.

First, a representative may act as a trustee of the public interest. A trustee does not vote on instruction from those she is called to represent. Rather she employs her own good judgement and does what she believes to be in the best interest of the public she serves. In a country divided into electoral districts or ridings, the member of legislature looks out, not just for those in her district, but for the entire political community.

Of course, this may not always be popular with those who elected her. The 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke discovered this while attempting to gain re-election in Bristol, the riding he represented in the British House of Commons. In a meeting with the Bristol electors in 1774, he articulated his position as follows:

His unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. . . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

For all Burke’s undoubted eloquence, he failed to persuade the people who had just put him in office and was defeated the next time around.

Second, a representative may be considered merely an agent or delegate of the voters. During a candidates’ debate at Redeemer University College in late 1988, a member of the audience asked the prospective office-holders how they would vote if an abortion bill came before them and a free vote were allowed in the Commons. Most avoided taking a stance on such a divisive issue by stating that they would poll their constituents and vote accordingly.

This was the approach of the old Reform Party under the leadership of Preston Manning, who favoured free votes in parliament, thereby enabling MPs more easily to channel their constituents’ wishes into public policy. South of the border Ross Perot supported this agent or delegate approach during his third-party presidential campaigns in 1992 and ’96. The use of referenda goes even further and removes the middle man, which is what the agent or delegate amounts to, thus permitting citizens to vote directly on the issues of the day. If we were to follow this approach, our own political systems would approximate the direct democracy of Athens or the New England town meetings.

Kuyper treated representation in Ons Program, published in 1879 as the programme of the newly established Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands. The delegate conception he titled the “imperative mandate,” in which a member of the States General acts “in keeping with what the voters have ordered and mandated him.” By contrast, the “trusted man” governs “without any tie to the voters” and keeps the electorate in a permanent state of immaturity, much as a lord relates paternalistically to the serfs on a feudal estate.

Kuyper believes that neither of these is adequate for understanding the task of representation. Better, he argues, that a member of parliament be a “bearer of a principle” with a “moral bond” to the electorate. True, the people may lack the political expertise of their leaders, but they do possess a certain political instinct which the leaders are bound to respect. They may not know the ins and outs of specific policy prescriptions, but they have a general understanding of the principles which ought to guide the making of such policies.

During an election candidates for public office are obligated to inform voters of their support for these principles, thereby enabling them to vote intelligently. It is not enough for a party to raise up “trusted men” and ask the people to follow them blindly based on this trust alone. Even trustees are in the grip of a worldview which the people deserve to know in advance.

“Trust us” is insufficient as a campaign promise, particularly if we have no assurance that the party seeking our support understands the principles of limited and just governance in the context of a pluriform society. Yet neither do we want our representatives to abdicate leadership and simply do our bidding. Instead we need our political parties to inform us honestly of their guiding principles, to stop telling us what they think we want to hear, and to govern in accordance with these principles. Anything less than that is unworthy of representation in a democratic polity. Kuyper understood this, and so should we.


David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. Ons Program has been translated into English as Our Program and is available as the first volume of a series of Kuyper's Collected Works in Public Theology. This post is an adaptation of a column in Christian Courier.

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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca