You’re Probably a Socialist—Now Own the Label

Matt Peiken

Matt Peiken

If you live in the core of Minneapolis or St. Paul and voted to re-elect President Obama, you’re probably a socialist. You would just as soon wear a scarlet letter, though, as wear the label of socialist. And if you already regard yourself a socialist, you might have eschewed Obama for this guy, this guy or this other guy.

Modern conservatives have, in concert, demonized socialism, conflating it with Big Government communism and brandishing the label as a smoke screen of anti-Americanism.  Never mind that, issue after issue, if you’re that local Obama voter, your own moral compass might point you far more toward socialistic prescriptions than to their antithesis—capitalism.

Skeptical? Let’s go down the line: Education, healthcare, public safety, access to healthy food and clean water. Do you want for-profit companies running these systems free of government oversight, deciding the haves and have-nots according to their ability to pay? If not, at least to some degree, you’re open to socialistic solutions.

That’s what Ty Moore is counting on. Moore is the only paid staffer of the Twin Cities chapter of Socialist Alternative, and he’s running as a Green Party-endorsed, socialist candidate for the Ward 9 seat on the Minneapolis City Council. That seat, now held by mayoral candidate Gary Schiff, covers the neighborhoods of Central, Powderhorn, Corcoran and Phillips east of Chicago Avenue.

A couple days before the official kickoff to Moore’s campaign, I spoke with him about the potential albatross, as I saw it, of his socialist activism. Moore, who is 35, was recently arrested for his involvement in an Occupy Homes protest. Far from viewing socialism as a liability to manage or overcome, he rides it as a calling.

“I think many people would be surprised—they’ll agree with 95 percent of my platform without even identifying as socialists themselves,” Moore said. “Some people feel there’s a mystique, that it’s a little strange, a little scary, but once they read the platform, they’ll see they’re socialists and not even know it.”

Through the local Occupy Homes movement, Moore has promoted the principle of housing as a human right and, now, planted it as a cornerstone of his city council candidacy. He wants the city to divest itself from Wells Fargo and US Bank and create an entity that would provide affordable credit to homeowners and small businesses. Under his ideal, the City of Minneapolis would use its power of eminent domain to buy back foreclosed properties and sell them back to homeowners at current market value. The city would also turn over vacant, bank-owned properties to homeless families at affordable rates.

“It’s crazy that something as basic as housing is subject to the casino of Wall Street speculation,” Moore said. “Wall Street artificially inflated the value of houses in the first half of the last decade and their speculative casino destroyed the economy and ruined millions of people who did nothing wrong. So I don’t blame homeowners who did what they did when times were good and thought their incomes and job prospects would keep going up. It’s not individuals making bad choices or that they’re to blame in the vast majority of cases. It’s a system that simply isn’t working to provide decent, affordable housing in the richest country in the world. That’s crazy, in my view.”

Minneapolis’ embrace of socialism dates back a century. In 1916, voters elected a bold political visionary, Thomas Van Lear, as mayor—no larger American city, other than Milwaukee, had done the same at that point—and socialists have won council seats as recently as 2001. But the rhetoric around socialism has grown vitriolic in the last decade. Even through the cooling of the Tea Party, the enemies of socialism are easily found online, where the true meaning and principles of socialism are covered in Red-baiting red meat.

Moore blanches at the suggestion there’s room for socialistic principles within the moneyed Democratic Farmer-Labor platform, citing the city council’s approval of a publicly financed stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

“That was very unpopular and, somehow, a majority (of council votes) was able to be cobbled behind it, which I think reflects the tremendous power of developers and big-business interests,” he said. “It’s not about channeling (developers’) money to where the most jobs are needed. It’s where developers want to gentrify neighborhoods or make already wealthy, business-friendly neighborhoods even more business-friendly.”

Moore points to two current council members—Schiff and Elizabeth Glidden, both considered among the most reliably liberal voices on the 13-seat council—as exemplars of a “fatally flawed” approach to progressive reform.

“To me, it’s a big-business party. (Schiff and Glidden) go in thinking they can pull the party to the left, but inevitably they’re pulled to the right,” he said.

Moore expects to face an opponent with DFL backing in November and says it will take “a strong volunteer base of politically inspired activists,” along with between $20,000 to $30,000, to prevail. His approach involves building “a model of a different kind of politics,” where campaigns are entwined with social movements. One atypical strategy: His campaign will piggyback onto a petition around actions and events for Occupy Homes, rather than the other way around. The principle is the focus, he says, not his candidacy.

Minneapolis is as ready to embrace socialistic ideas as any city, and national polling suggests socialism isn’t as noxious a word as it was just a few years ago. A Gallup poll, conducted just after the election last November, showed 53 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners have a favorable view of socialism. Of the same respondents, 55 percent held a favorable view of capitalism. In the same poll, only 27 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of socialism (75 percent were favorable toward capitalism). The term “big business” drew a positive response from 44 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Republicans.

Just as pollsters can manipulate results through the phrasing of questions, so too can the people who shape and debate public policy. Ask yourself: Do Moore’s suggestions sound more appealing with or without the label of socialism?

“Most of what I want to see changed in society isn’t compatible with capitalism, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change a lot within the here and now,” Moore said.

Those changes—and Moore’s chances in November—start with owning some ideals, and perhaps even the label, of socialism. Until our leaders can demonstrate how capitalism does a better job of lifting people up from the bottom rather than pushing down from the top, perhaps there are far more damning labels to wear.

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