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Sarah Palin's red-state socialism: Why the right is more pinko than you think

Socialism already exists in America — and not always where you'd expect, Democracy Collaborative experts tell Salon


Elias Isquith
August 5, 2015 7:29PM (UTC)

After experiencing a brief uptick of support in 2010, likely as a response to what was a particularly nasty phase of the Great Recession, a recent poll from Gallup suggests that Americans' relationship with socialism is returning to its traditional mix of antipathy and incomprehension. According to a Politico report on the poll from earlier this summer, a meager 47 percent of Americans "would vote for a socialist if their party nominated one." In terms of public antipathy, only a hypothetical atheist came close.

So when the Democracy Collaborative's Gar Alperovitz and Thomas Hanna say that socialism is alive and well in the U.S., as they recently did in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, you cannot accuse them of parroting conventional wisdom. But their argument is not just a cheap grab for contrarian clicks; it's premised, in fact, on an assessment not of what is likely to come, but what's happening already. And it's happening in places like Alaska, Texas and the Deep South — not exactly where you'd first think to look.

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Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Alperovitz and Hanna. Besides their Op-Ed, we discussed how American-style socialism might be packaged to survive in America's historically socialism-phobic political culture, and how these early signs may one day be looked upon the same way as the decades preceding the New Deal. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

You make the case that  "American socialism" exists today. What does it look like in practice?

Gar Alperovitz (GA): The obvious thing is that in communities all over the country, there are publicly owned utilities — 2,000 of them — that are just common, conventional ideas. That's the most obvious place in which you see public ownership. In red states, you see it in ports, cooperatives, hospitals, and hotels owned by cities. Much of it is very conventional, available, and ordinary, but it doesn't get much press. Public ownership — profits going the public, city or state — is quite common, and we think that's significant. It needs to be talked about, how it might be approved and how it might be drawn upon, reformed, and built upon in other areas.

What's a specific working example of this?

GA: Alaska's oil revenue is a very good example of this. This is Sarah Palin's project — it was done before her, but she elaborated on it. People get a guaranteed income from the public control of oil resources. A couple thousand dollars per person a few years ago, it goes up and down with the price of oil. A family with three kids got $10,000 from public ownership.

Thomas Hanna (TH): One of the interesting things about public ownership is that it proves, at least in the American context, that you can have a democratized ownership form at larger scales. We have a lot of cooperatives and other forms of democratized ownership, but they're generally at a smaller scale and with smaller enterprises.

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However, in Alaska and some of the other sovereign wealth funds we wrote about, the utilities Gar mentioned — hospitals, hotels, ports and airports — demonstrate that you can have a democratized ownership form at a reasonably large scale, which is something that isn't really thought about in American political economic discourse.

You begin the Op-Ed with a mention of Joseph Schumpeter. Why?  

GA: Schumpeter — the classical, great, conservative, mid-20th century economist — taught at Harvard and was very famous for his theory of "creative destruction," the idea that capitalism both destroys and creates. He had a wonderful phrase, "If the radicals weren't so busy chivying the bourgeoisie, they'd realize that the best claim for socialism was to go to the public and eliminate, or radically reduce, taxation."

It was an interesting point that I have never seen picked up between radicals or socialists, but very much available in the elastic experiment we're talking about, and in the general picture for public ownership. He makes a larger point about who controls the profits that come from ownership.

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I come out of American liberalism; I ran committees and staff at both the House and Senate at one point, and we would attempt to tax back the profits or high incomes and use it for socialist purposes. The traditional socialist idea was, to Mr. Schumpeter's point, capture the profits directly and use them directly, rather than trying to build enough power to do the taxation.

These examples demonstrate that this can be done, in very practical, very mundane, very American circumstances throughout the country, on a medium and smaller scale.

TH: In many of the red states, using this type of ownership instead of taxation, or to alleviate some of the pressures of taxation, is very conventional, and even attractive in conservative states where raising taxes is a non-starter. They're finding out other ways to use natural resources, and using ownership by the state to benefit social services, schools, and things of that nature instead of raising taxes.

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G: A really good, sharp illustration of this is Texas, one of the most conservative states. A good part of their education system is financed by state ownership of oil reserves that go directly, not using taxes, to fund schools and universities in the state.

A lot of these examples have to do with the redistribution of profits gleaned from natural resources. Can this model work outside of that context?

GA: We think this is an issue that is going to be raised in many other areas. It is, in some sense, the answer to Thomas Picketty's problem; in his book he talks about the capital concentration going to the top. We've been following many forms of democratized ownership, starting with co-ops, land banks at the neighborhood level, municipal ownership and state ownership of banks — there's a whole series of these that attempt to fill the small-scale infrastructure that can build up to a larger theoretical vision.

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Likely because of the difficulty with the traditional, liberal-Democratic model and the blockages on that front, these other forms are taking on an importance and a necessity.

TH: I don't think this model has to be based on resource extraction. While it is true that some of the sovereign wealth funds that we led off the Times article with are directly related to that, public ownership exists in the same way throughout the system. The utilities sector, as we mentioned in the article, has a similar, publicly owned structure that exists to generate profit and reduce costs for the local population.

Many utilities are fossil-fuel reliant, but some aren't; we mentioned Boulder, Colorado, but also Burlington, Vermont's publicly owned utility recently announced that it was the first utility of considerable size to source 100 percent of its energy from renewable energy. Utilities can and are moving interesting directions, especially with regards to the environment, and this also exists in many other sectors.

GA: Internationally, there are countries going well beyond this course, with airlines, transportation. There are systems around the world that have explored mining, rail transport, television, communication, Internet service — there very common examples around the world that we can draw examples from.

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How do conservatives defend these programs? They seem so contradictory to movement conservatism ideology.

GA: It's interesting because in one sense it's subtle hypocrisy. They do this all the time in cities; cities will set up and finance hotels, in order to increase attraction for convention centers. They do it regularly with the business community and in support the business community; it's a conventional thing they're not even defensive about. The argument here is that we could begin using exactly the same techniques for more progressive purposes, and not allow this strategy to be used only conservatives for business support.

TH: Below the surface, in local communities around the country, these ideas are uncontroversial and popular. They're not strange, ideologically charged ideas. Most public utilities happen to be in rural areas, a lot of them predominate in the South in very conservative areas. People who would otherwise identify themselves as very conservative understand the importance of local control and of these institutions supporting their communities.

So from a political-messaging standpoint, would tying this policy to more federalist, local-government-first rhetoric be the right move?

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GA: That's one way to start the discussion. There are areas using what's called the "checkerboard strategy." They are different cities where you can move around the "checkerboard," doing things you can't do in every square, that you can do in some of them, building a mosaic of these kinds of practices. There are about 400 cable television networks, for example, that are publicly owned. That's a big fight for big private companies. In some areas, this is a political struggle, in some it's conventional common sense.

What we think is happening is that as social and economic pain deepens, the issue becomes is there anything you can do locally or in states? In some states — it's a checkerboard — you can do really interesting things, in some you can't do anything. These kinds of policies, along with other forms of democratic ownership, we're seeing this phenomenon being driven partially by the failure of traditional progressive programs and by the deadlock. The federalism term is a good term, but it's just below the surface; it's just about to come up into wider public understanding that these practices are happening and are politically viable.

TH: In places that you would think progressive ideas are blocked, places where it seems like these practices would be more difficult, there is actually a history and experience with these more democratized forms of ownership. Nebraska, a very conservative state that seems like it would be anti-experimentation with progressive strategies, is the only state in the country where every single household gets their electricity from either a publicly owned utility or a cooperatively owned utility.

Conservatives often make the argument that socialism won't work in America because, unlike Scandinavian or other Western European countries with larger welfare programs, we aren't demographically homogenous. Would that same line of attack be applicable here?

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GA: Scandinavian countries actually have less public ownership, I believe — they're strong liberal-progressive countries, but that's declining as well. What we're seeing is different, scattered community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and city development. We're not running into, yet, the racial divisions that make this negative.

It often starts at the neighborhood level and gets city support. In Cleveland, the city government uses public programs to help neighborhood development, some of it through common ownership of cooperatives in a very poor black neighborhood. It's successful politically for the mayor because he's doing development work that is positive for the whole community. Most of this municipal. We've not yet reached higher levels — state banks, state health programs.

TH: Some of the larger publicly owned institutions we mentioned in the article exist in states that are very diverse. Texas is a very large and diverse state, and the funds that are generated from the sovereign wealth are distributed to the public education system in a relatively egalitarian manner. It doesn't flow to just one part of the state or one spectrum of the racial makeup state or one income level.

What do you hope to see in the near- and medium-term future, both from politicians and activists, with regard to pushing this trend forward?

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GA: We're beginning to see activists on different levels and some mayors picking up on these ideas in different parts of the country. We've been talking to a number of organizer groups who come to us because we gather information on this, who are looking for applications in their own city. There are also mayors doing it on their own. It's bubbling up, instead of happening in an organized effort. What's driving this is pain. Experimentation is happening because the old systems aren't working. People are building on this trend because it gives them an alternative. So we would encourage activists and progressive mayors to pick up on what's been done in Cleveland; in Richmond, California; in Richmond, Virginia.

TH: There are three important strategies that I would like to see and that are occurring around the country. The first is to defeat privatization and defend public ownership. This involves making sure in local communities water resources are not privatized. The second would be to expand public enterprise and ownership in interesting ways; the example would be the Boulder, Colorado, initiative we mentioned.

The third would be to actually democratize public ownership and move it forward in a way that is more transparent and accountable, and with more participation from local communities. For example, there has been talk about reforming Port Authority in New Jersey, which is a very large and important public enterprise for the local economy; however, it's been mired in regional politics. We want to push public ownership towards some of the goals we have as progressives.

GA: If you look at the 20-year pre-history of the New Deal, it came from experimentation at the state and local level of democracy. The knowledge gained from experimentation on the local level may see this move toward the national level, in ways that are refined over time. It's a painful process, but it's a process that is underway and should be embraced.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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