Did you know there are socialists in the Midwest?
Americans are used to the country's vast rural hinterlands being depicted as Trump Territory — and variants on socialism attributed to East Coast intellectuals and pointy-headed Vermonters. But the socialist movement has deep historical roots in "flyover country": In the early 20th century, the tiny town of Girard, Kansas was a hub of American socialism, as was Madison, Wisconsin. These days, as The Atlantic outlines, a growing number of young adults in Iowa are at the forefront of the movement.
It's difficult to discuss socialism these days without acknowledging that its definition varies depending on who you're asking. For Republicans, socialism is often an all-purpose slur used to describe relatively mild ideas like progressive taxation and Medicare, while the rest of the country can use it as a catch-all term for a whole spectrum of ideas and approaches left of "expanding the safety net a little bit." Labeling an idea "democratic socialism" offers a bit more clarity, but only barely.
But socialists, self-described or otherwise, do seem to agree on one thing, as 27-year-old Iowan Casey Erixon told The Atlantic: "There is a growing sense that the system is broken."
The 2020 presidential election may well end up being a referendum on socialism. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is looking to make another strong run in the Democratic primaries, and ideas like Medicare-for-all are being bandied about even among more moderate candidates. President Trump, meanwhile, started 2019 with a declaration at the State of the Union that "we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."
Whether that remains true, though, depends in part on the health of capitalism — and the health of the middle class in this capitalist country. The question, then, is whether or not capitalism seems to be improving American lives. If so, it'll remain dominant. If not, alternatives will look increasingly attractive. Here are three pieces of evidence that the capitalist system in America is, indeed, broken:
1. Leaders are paving the way for a second massive economic crisis within a generation.
Regulators are starting to ease the rules put in place after the economic meltdown that led to the Great Recession a decade ago. The Fed, for example, wants to loosen requirements for big banks to have plans in place to close in an emergency without requiring a government bailout. Congress and regulators are making it easier for those same banks to make the kinds of high-risk loans that led to the last economic disaster. The government last year rolled back the Dodd-Frank law that enshrined many economic protections into law.
2. It is becoming more and more difficult for the average American to live life sustainably.
Some of capitalism's stoutest defenders attempt to spin its worst flaws as virtues. For example, America's education system is set up in such a way that for many, getting an education means going deep into debt. But here is how one National Review writer mocked a young woman's story about how she nearly avoided medical school because she wasn't sure she could shoulder the cost:
The horrifying plight of med school grads in the US. A life of prosperity, respect, and help for your fellow man awaits. The humanity! https://t.co/cQNPshL5IR
— David French (@DavidAFrench) April 8, 2019
That's astoundingly tone deaf, but not unusual: The free market's biggest defenders are the same people trying to exacerbate its flaws by taking away ObamaCare's insurance protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. And they've topped it off by giving out giant tax cuts to the rich, then turning around and saying America can't afford even its existing safety net protections.
3. The party of capitalism put Donald Trump in the White House.
The face of the American Way these days isn't an industrialist like Steve Jobs or somebody else who makes things that make lives better — it's a man who inherited his wealth, blew much of it, oversaw numerous failed businesses, and still managed to fail his way upward into cultural superstardom.
Want socialism? Kick the grownups out of the White House and put in charge a walking, talking reminder that capitalism is often a rigged game.
At its best, capitalism can create broad wealth and a strong middle class. But capitalism in America is far from being its best. Instead, this system has let money, property, power, and opportunity accumulate mostly at the very top of the food chain.
So if socialism is finding a foothold in the Midwest, it's not because effete coastal trendsetters are following the latest fad. Frustrated Americans everywhere are looking for an alternative to the fading status quo.