Alabama Congressman Spencer Bachus, who despite an uncanny naivete regarding matters economic is the ranking Republican on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, is all jittery about the prospect that socialists in Congress are steering the ship of state off the left end of his flat Earth.
Yes, Socialists! In Congress!
Are you red scared? Don’t be.
Washington, D.C., is overrun with banking, insurance and investment firm lobbyists – just about all of whom have contributed generously to Bachus and his colleagues on the financial services committee. These guardians of the “free market” devote their every waking hour to assuring that Congress will keep the bailout bucks flowing to Wall Street. So far, they have proven more than a match for those fiscally-responsible Americans who argue that, instead of enriching the speculators, we ought to be cracking down on them.
But this trifling detail has not prevented Bachus from grousing about the socialist threat.
“Some of these guys I work with, the men and women in Congress, are socialists,” he fretted to a crowd of local officials in his home state the other day. Asked by a reporter for the Birmingham News to clarify his remarks, the congressman claimed that 17 members of the U.S. House are socialists. He also mentioned that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders uses the “S” word to describe his ideology.
Sanders identifies as a democratic socialist, in the great American tradition of Michael Harrington, Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph, Helen Keller and Eugene Victor Debs. But he’s not an actual member of the Socialist Party that Debs and Thomas led in the first half of the last century, nor even of the Democratic Socialists of America grouping that Harrington forged in the latter half.
And Sanders is the most out-front, engaged and active socialist in the current Congress.
So where is Bachus’ socialists? Reporters at The Politico — the Washington insider website that has to treat Republican legislators from Alabama seriously — suggest that the congressman, or more likely one of his aides, might have checked the Congressional Progressive Caucus website and misread the membership number. The CPC recently listed 71 members on its site — although that number has since risen to 77. Perhaps “71” was transposed as “17.
Could it be that the CPC members — including House Financial Services Committee chair Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts; bailout critic Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo; and civil rights hero John Lewis, D-Georgia — form a socialist cell within the current Congress?
Not by any stretch of the rational imagination.
The CPC’s a mainstream liberal group that takes stands similar to those outlined by Barack Obama and John Edwards during their presidential primary campaigns of late 2007 and early 2008.
Conservatives have for many years tried to paint the CPC as a “socialistic” grouping, noting that Sanders headed the caucus when he was in the House and that it cooperated some years ago with the Democratic Socialists of America.
But the unfortunate reality is that there are not 71 socialists in the House, not even 17.
Why is this unfortunate?
First: One does not need to be a socialist to recognize that capitalism has stumbled badly in recent months, and that some of those stumbles resulted from the market absolutism that has held sway in Washington for decades. Had there been a few more socialists in Congress in the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century, we might have avoided some of the deregulatory deviations, free-trade fantasies and giveaways to Wall Street that so weakened the real economy of the United States.
A sincere socialist critique of unfettered capitalism is not just useful but necessary, just as a capitalist critique of unfettered socialism can be useful. This is not some radical notion. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with whom President Obama just met, is a socialist. So, too, were a number of the other participants in the recent G-20 summit. Many of the savviest and most fiscally responsible ideas about the current economic crisis — including notions regarding bank nationalization that have been embraced even by some conservative Republicans in Congress — were generated by socialists.
Second: A significant socialist presence in the House would reflect the sentiments of the American people. According to a new survey by Rasmussen Reports, a conservative polling group, 20 percent of Americans believe that socialism is a superior system to capitalism. Another 27 percent are not sure whether socialism or capitalism is preferable. (According to Rasmussen, younger Americans are even more inclined toward socialism, with 33 percent of adults under the age of thirty identifying with the “S” word and 30 percent suggesting that they are undecided between socialism and capitalism.
If Rasmussen is right, and if the House’s membership was genuinely reflective of the ideological sentiments of the American people, the chamber would not have 17, nor even 71 or 77 socialists.
There would be at least 90 socialists serving in the House, and probably a good many more.
As it is, the last actual Socialist Party member to serve in the House was Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger who left office in 1929, after having been elected a half dozen times. (Denied the seat because of his opposition to World War I, Berger was repeatedly reelected by Milwaukee voters until congressional leaders relented and admitted him to the chamber.)
Berger spent his time in Congress advocating for the creation of a Social Security system to provide old-age pensions, for the expansion of trade unionism and the protection of farmers, for the establishment of public utilities, for regulating bankers and speculators and for prosecuting war profiteers. Berger railed against monopolies and he definitely favored nationalizing some essential industries. But he always maintained that his highest priorities were the defense of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the strengthening of democratic processes in order to assure that the great mass of working Americans had a genuine say in defining the direction of the country.
“As a matter of fact,” Berger told his colleagues as the country was careening toward the Wall Street crash that the Milwaukee Socialist warned was coming, “a large number of Socialists in Congress would be a blessing to the country at the present time — and they could possibly stand between you and chaos.”
Berger’s words still ring true. Even those who disdain socialism ought to recognize that Congress would be well-served by the addition of a few more members who are inclined to question the bankers that Spencer Bachus — a leading proponent of the Wall Street bailout — keeps handing blank checks.