If you’ve been following this series of posts, you might be thinking I could go on forever about reasons for Latter-day Saints to give up on their association with the mess we call the Republican Party. And you might be right. But I’ll spare you. This will be the last post on this theme. And to close this series I will focus on a couple of ideas that Republicans generally do not understand but insist on using anyway to fuel their fires of disinformation. I’m talking about socialism and capitalism.
I’m sure you’re well aware of the GOP’s use of “socialism” as an all-purpose bogeyman to strike fear in the hearts of those inhabiting the right-wing echo chamber. To hear Republicans talk about socialism, you’d think that it is the most evil idea ever proposed by the left. In fact, they’ve gone so far as to suggest that the Democrats want to turn the United States into Cuba or Venezuela. Sometimes they hit closer the mark and try to scare people by claiming that the Democrats want to turn us into Scandinavia or Germany. To that scare tactic, I’ve asked before in this space, “What exactly scares you about Germany?” To put this all in some sort of realistic context, let me reuse a story I have told before.
One sunny afternoon in August 1984, my wife and I wandered the streets of East Berlin. We witnessed the somber, hopeless faces of the city’s few pedestrians. We marveled at the cheap-looking Trabants that motored loudly up and down the streets and farted foul fumes out of their tailpipes. We passed soldier after soldier, each fully armed, each exuding an almost tangible assurance that the Cold War was as real as any hot one. We watched people stand in lines a block long to buy produce. We tried to spend our allotted fifty Ostmarks in the city’s most prestigious department store but couldn’t find even a souvenir we wouldn’t have thrown away. We finally bought a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. We ate at a cafeteria where the food tasted as unappetizing as it looked, then stopped at an ice cream parlor on Unter den Linden that was already out of practically everything on the menu by 4 p.m. By evening we were more than eager to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We left with most of our Eastern currency and absolutely no illusions about communism.
I can still remember later that evening visiting a little Slavic restaurant in a quiet corner of Neukölln and how ecstatic I was over a tossed salad with tomatoes and green peppers. “I could never get a salad like this in East Berlin!” I exulted. That one afternoon behind the Iron Curtain had made me see the world with new eyes. I marveled at how many stores and shops there were in the West, and at how fully stocked they were. In fact, because of that one afternoon, I can perhaps dimly imagine what the East Germans must have felt that November day five years later when the Wall came tumbling down. I can understand their desires for reunification and prosperity. I can understand their blind assumption that capitalism is right—because communism is definitely wrong.
I watched with intense interest during the latter part of 1989 as Eastern Europe retreated from communism and authoritarianism. Having spent the last four months of my mission in West Berlin, that one-time island of hope in a sea of despair, I was overwhelmed by what I witnessed on television on November 9, 1989—East and West Berliners dancing atop the Wall of Shame, holes being pounded in that concrete barrier by people wielding everything from sledge hammers to ice picks, the suddenly released floods of revolution flowing through those gaping holes like water through a burst dam, the giddy intoxication of reunion as long-oppressed East Germans clasped hands once again with their prosperous West German brothers and sisters.
And yet in the ensuing weeks and months, many in the East, not entirely convinced that materialism was more noble than poverty, criticized the masses, suggesting that they were motivated not by love of freedom, but by greed. Now, this was an ugly accusation, yet it is an accusation that all believing capitalists must repeatedly explain away. “Is it wrong to have enough to eat?” they exclaim incredulously, misunderstanding the accusation. “Is it wrong to be able to purchase a few luxuries? Is prosperity bad?” they mock. “It’s certainly not as bad as poverty!”
But the question is not whether wealth and prosperity are better or worse than poverty and destitution. The real question is whether our modern form of capitalism is right simply because communism is wrong. And, oddly, in all the celebrating over the demise of communism, few in the United States seemed willing to question the fundamental moral validity of America’s version of capitalism, which can more accurately be labeled corporate capitalism. Certainly communism and corporate capitalism are opposites. But two opposites can both be wrong. Just because stealing from the sick is detestable doesn’t make stealing from the healthy commendable. Stealing of any kind is wrong.
For some reason, though, the triumph of the democratic, capitalist West in the Cold War seems to have rendered this question immaterial. Of course capitalism is right, we naively boast. Freedom and democracy triumphed, didn’t they? Capitalism conquered Eastern Europe and even killed the Soviet Union. And capitalism is the economic manifestation of freedom and democracy, isn’t it? Isn’t the free-market system synonymous with freedom?
Perhaps, but only on a very superficial level. The simplistic nature of these questions can be illustrated by looking more carefully at the enduring conservative campaign in the United States against socialism. Republicans, who are religiously devoted to free markets, deregulation, corporate welfare, and tax cuts for the wealthy, have also sounded the warning cry against socialism, particularly any tampering with the health-care industry that approaches socialized medicine. How many times have we heard that socialism is evil, just one step, or perhaps even a half-step, away from communism?
But is socialism really just a half-step away from communism? Remember the contrast I drew between the scarcity of goods in East Berlin and their abundance in West Berlin, between the oppression in the East and the freedom in the West? Yes, this was a contrast between two opposing systems. But it was not a contrast between East Germany and America; it was a contrast between communist East Germany and socialist West Germany. West Germany in the 1980s was a solidly socialist country, with socialized medicine, high marginal tax rates, a statutory guarantee of four weeks’ paid vacation every year (compared with none in America), and a substantial social safety net. Yes, West Germany was a welfare state. It also had one of the strongest capitalist economies and highest standards of living in the world. It was strong enough to absorb the crumbling mess that was East Germany and still remain the strongest economy in Europe. And the fact that West Germany (now just Germany) has endured stably for almost eighty years since World War II as a socialist nation reveals the lie in conflating socialism and communism, as Republicans often do. Socialism is not a subtle opening for communism to step in and take over. It is a system that has proven both durable and successful—and compatible with democracy.
I’ve lived in Germany. I have friends there. They do not consider themselves deprived of freedom or democracy. They are prosperous. Their country has less income inequality than ours, and very little poverty. They would never trade their socialized medicine for the American health-care system (if we can call such chaos a system), for their system ranks higher in quality than ours while costing only half as much as a percentage of GDP. And now you can even get tomatoes and green peppers on your salad in East Berlin. Socialist East Berlin.
So, to return to the question I asked earlier, did freedom and democracy really win the Cold War? Or were they merely secondary issues in the real conflict? And anyway, does winning prove anything about rightness or wrongness?
Socialism and capitalism are not the monolithic entities that simpletons and dishonest politicians would paint them. We have socialism in the United States, and, as I pointed out in my last post, many Republicans would be very angry if their elected representatives tried to cut their Social Security checks or Medicare benefits. They would not appreciate Congress turning our interstate highways into toll roads. Nor would they like being required to send their kids to private schools. So socialism is here to stay. The only question is whether we are willing to allow socialism to expand optimally to fulfill functions that the market is ill-suited to perform, like providing health care.
We also have a particular form of capitalism in America that I refer to as corporate capitalism. I call it this because we accept a high level of corporate welfare in our economy. Corporations are definitely more important in America than individual citizens. Our system’s most significant feature is probably that we allow certain individuals and corporations to accumulate as much wealth as possible, while relegating millions of Americans to poverty and such low wages that they cannot afford food, shelter, and transportation. Germany has a form of capitalism (and socialism) that is very different in significant ways from what we experience here in America.
So, if you can accept that socialism is not the evil Republicans have portrayed it to be, and if you can accept that our form of capitalism is not ideal, then you should be suspicious of those who use these terms imprecisely for purely political ends. Of all the politicians in America, Bernie Sanders probably comes closest to what Latter-day Saints should expect from government. Yes, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist who is not afraid to tell the truth about what is wrong with America and what we should be doing to create a more humane and just society.
Well, I don’t know whether my arguments about the Republican Party’s fitness for Latter-day Saint participation will make any difference. But I feel that I have to do my part in trying to confront what I see as some dangerous political trends among Latter-day Saints. In many ways, the Constitution is indeed hanging by a thread. And many Latter-day Saints are rushing forward with scissors.