Stephens: Capitalism and the Democratic Party

Stephens: Capitalism and the Democratic Party

March 12th, 2019 by Bret Stephens / The New York Times in Opinion Free Press Commentary

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at a sendoff event in Denver last Thursday to launch his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020.

Photo by Thomas Peipert

John Hickenlooper ought to be a poster child for American capitalism. After being laid off from his job as a geologist during the oil bust of the 1980s, he and his business partners turned an empty warehouse into a thriving brewery. It launched his political career, first as a problem-solving two-term mayor of Denver, then as a pragmatic two-term governor of Colorado, and now as a centrist candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yet there he was on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," squirming in his seat as Joe Scarborough asked if he would call himself "a proud capitalist." Hickenlooper protested the divisiveness of labels. He refused to reject the term "socialism."

But Hickenlooper did allow this: "We worked 70, 80, 90 hours a week to build the business; and we worked with the other business owners in [Denver] to help them build their business. Is that capitalism? I guess."

He guessed right.

Despite Friday's disappointing jobs report, unemployment in the United States clocks in at a rock-bottom 3.8 percent. Wage growth, at 3.4 percent, is at a 10-year high. The median household income is as high as it has ever been.

None of this should be difficult to celebrate. Such an economy will, over time, generate more wealth, innovation and charity — and distribute each far more widely — than any form of central planning.

This is not a theory. It's as true in Nordic countries like Denmark (often mislabeled "socialist") as it is in hyper-capitalist Singapore. It's the empirically verifiable conclusion from the 20th century's bitter contest between capitalist and socialist states. It's not a race we should have to run twice.

Nor should it be hard for someone like Hickenlooper to acknowledge as much — while also insisting on the distinction between unrestrained and regulated capitalism, market prices and moral values. To smooth the edges of capitalism, even to save it from itself, doesn't mean to disdain and disavow it.

There's a difference between taming a horse and shooting it.

Until about, oh, a year ago, few Democrats would have disagreed. Not anymore. Moderate Democrats are by no means an endangered species, but increasingly they act like a hunted one. Watching Hickenlooper, you could read his mind as if it were a chyron at the foot of the screen. Don't say "proud capitalist," John. Twitter will kill me if I do. Death by Twitter mob — or pre-emptive surrender to it — is how politics is largely conducted these days.

Is this good politics? I doubt it. As Geoffrey Kabaservice noted in The Guardian last November, "Nearly all of the Democrats who flipped the seats of moderate Republicans are themselves moderate. Few support the socialist agenda of Senator Bernie Sanders."

It's also especially bad politics for someone like Hickenlooper, who can't get away with filibustering about the merits of capitalism if he hopes to get near the nomination. To the extent that Sanders' concept of democratic socialism has gained traction, it's not because capitalism has failed the masses. It's because Sanders, beyond any of his peers, has consistent convictions and an authentic persona.

To prevail, a moderate Democrat will need to behave likewise. The message can go like this: Capitalism has worked for millions of Americans. It worked for me. We need to reform it so it can work for everyone.

Is Hickenlooper the guy to do this? Doubtful. Then again, Donald Trump is gearing up to run a campaign based on a thriving economy (check), a country at peace (check), a mess of congressional investigations that will quickly confuse and bore the public (check), Democrats who want to turn Silicon Valley into a giant utility (check), an inconclusive Mueller report (likely check), and a Democratic Party that can't publicly embrace the free-market system (check).

Democrats still seem to think 2020 is going to be a referendum on the president. It's not. It's going to be a choice. Right now, the Trump campaign could hardly ask for a bigger favor from its overconfident opponents.

The New York Times

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com