Socialism in the US Presidential Race -- A Japanese Media Perspective

Original Article – Nobu Tanaka, West Japan Daily, published Dec. 16, 2019

Translation – Kaiser F, Metro DC DSA, December 2019

Background: In 2019, Nobu Tanaka, a journalist with the West Japan Daily, interviewed several people in the DC area regarding the increasing focus on socialist politics in the US. Mr. Tanaka has a regular column where he explains US and DC politics for a Japanese audience and conducted these interviews as part of a longer article meant to introduce the subject of socialist politics and explore widening inequality as a focus of the 2020 election. The original article, including photos, is available here:

Translation of the photo captions is at the foot of this translated article.

Translator Notes: I tried to translate as closely as possible to the original meaning, given the different styles used in the US and Japan and the fact that the article was written for Japanese readers not already familiar with US politics and society. As a result, some phrasing may sound unnatural, and some issues may not be framed the way that many in DSA would characterize them – two examples are (1) the labeling of some fundamental reforms as “big government”, and (2) the centrality of the 2020 presidential election – but I retained the framing in order to reflect accurately the original article.  Any quotations have gone through two levels of translation, so they may not precisely reflect what was originally said. Quotation marks are not necessarily used as “scare quotes” so much as they are used to denote specific terms, so I kept quotation marks as-is in the translation. The norm for Japanese newspaper articles is to note the age and occupation of anyone referenced.


"Your US Presidential Election"

"Socialism," why it focuses on widening inequality and questions "who is capitalism for?"

2019-12-16 13:22 (revised 2019-12-16 17:21)

West Japan Daily, International – Nobu Tanaka

"Why have far left candidates widened their support during the US presidential race?" The West Japan Daily's "Your Special Reporting Team" has received many questions like this. [To answer,] we interviewed supporters of candidates in the opposition Democratic Party, whom President Trump has derided as "socialists" and "extreme left", people like students burdened by high levels of debt or those concerned with the increasing severity of natural disasters and raising the alarm over issues directly affecting US society. They see capitalism as the root cause and hope to bring about a socialist "big government"-style of fundamental reform.

On a weekday night in November, at a library in Virginia in the Washington, DC, suburbs, a local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held its meeting. About 15 people were gathered, most in their 20s and 30s, part of what is called the "Millennial Generation". Recently the group has had even younger newcomers.

The presidential election was one item on the agenda. Members exchanged opinions and discussed how to incorporate the policies they advocated into the presidential race, such as the substantial expansion of the role of government and rectifying inequality by imposing greater taxes and regulations on large corporations. These policies overlap with the campaign promises of Senator Bernie Sanders and other candidates in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

One of the members who commented often was Kaiser (age 36), who works in the DC area and is also the son of Asian immigrants. He joined DSA in sympathy with strong opposition to the Trump administration's intolerant immigration policies. During the meeting, he called for cooperation "against the corporations supporting the increasing immigration crackdown".

The background of Kaiser's current activism started with disappointment in "change" that former President Obama advocated. One example was the health insurance reform known as "Obamacare." "It was better than nothing, but it was a half-measure," he said.

This spring, Kaiser was struck with severe abdominal pain and got emergency treatment at a hospital. However, problems arose when his insurance company could not determine whether his private insurance applied to the treatment. And so, he spent six months negotiating over his share of the expenses. In a separate incident, before they were married, his wife was in a severe car accident while uninsured, and it took her 14 years to pay off nearly US$20,000 in medical expenses.

Kaiser had hoped that Obamacare would make insurance available to everyone and change the way that insurance companies can determine their share of medical expenses in ways that disadvantage patients. But, "many people are still uninsured. Things haven't changed, and vulnerable people are still forced to accept it,” he explained.

Senators Sanders and Warren, the candidates most to the left, have both advocated proposals that seek to eliminate private insurance and cover everyone under public insurance instead. Kaiser strongly believes that "people are suffering, and we need drastic change."

* *

Kevin (age 34), a lecturer at a private university who is also active in the DC chapter of DSA, sees as a problem the worsening burden of student loans. He is still repaying his own loans since his graduation 13 years ago, yet he is more concerned that tuition fees continue to rise. “The burden on my generation doesn't even compare to the burden on today's students," he said.

Tuition fees are a little less than US$46,000 [annually]. Also burdened by living expenses, some students are even pressured to take a break from classes to work part-time jobs. According to one study, the national average level of debt for undergraduate students upon graduation is $28,000 to $37,000. Since higher-paying jobs increasingly require a master's or other more advanced degrees, debt amounts continue to increase.

Kevin said: "There are students who want to dedicate themselves to improving society, but because the salaries for jobs like educators and civil servants are so low, they give up because they can't repay their loans Is that supposed to be good for the US?"

Kevin wonders if a drastic revolution in the government's role in education, such as student loan forgiveness and tuition-free public universities, is urgently needed to fix the current situation.

"Even in the Democratic Party, there are centrists who support the current political situation, including the Obama administration, and so there is support for the status quo that continues to harm people. What we need are radical policies tied to the redistribution of wealth."

* *

Support for a "big government" similar to the ones in Northern Europe based on social democracy has increased among the millennial generation and even among teenagers.

Earlier this month on December 6, at a demonstration advocating for environmental protection in downtown Washington, there was a line of high school students holding up a banner that read "No More Business as Usual". They were referring to the industries emitting high levels of greenhouse gases and the corporations that finance them.

One of them was Ben (age 17), who emphasized that "we need major reform to protect the earth. The state must play a role in that." Ben, who will be able to vote for the first time in next year's presidential election, said that he liked Senator Sanders' policies [in this regard].

Another high school student (age 17) there was a supporter of Senator Warren and spoke about her experience after torrential rains earlier this summer made the roads near her house impassable for more than a month. "It's really scary, if nothing gets done," she worried.

They share a common skepticism about capitalism and strong anxiety about their future. Many in the millennial generation after the 2008 financial crisis saw their parents lose their jobs or were otherwise worse off. Later, even when the economy had recovered, on one side corporations and the wealthy benefited, while on the other inequality widened. Mixed with this is a sense of dissatisfaction with increasing rent and the cost of living in urban centers — and the question of "who is capitalism for?"

After the November meeting of the local branch of the DSA in Virginia, Hunter (age 31), who also works in the DC area and is a key member of the branch, stayed behind with Kaiser to discuss things. "There's value in engaging with socialist politics as the way to re-examine capitalism and how it causes suffering to many people," Hunter said.

Trump and other conservatives have strongly criticized this idea, saying that "the United States does not need socialism." When asked if they were bothered, the two of them laughed. "We're not bothered by what he says. Our membership is increasing. It's not possible for anyone to stop our movement."

* *

With one year left until the US presidential election next November, "Your Special Reporting Team" with the West Japan Daily is soliciting questions and opinions regarding the US and the presidential race. We have received inquiries from 140 people in just one month, confirming a high level of interest. Henceforth, the paper's Washington bureau will be investigating the answers to these questions more thoroughly and reporting accordingly. (Nobu Tanaka, Washington).

While the "Millennial Generation" has less resistance to leftism, is the expansion of leftist support limited by the general public's opposition to "extremism"?

Movements calling for "socialist" policies in US society have been growing in recent years. During the last presidential race in 2016, Senator Sanders ran for the Democratic Party nomination, calling himself a "Democratic Socialist". During the congressional elections last year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders supporter, became the youngest woman in history to be elected to the US House of Representatives.

In the background of this change is the end of the Cold War in 1989. The millennial generation born in the 80s and early 90s do not associate communism and socialism with the Soviet Union [as much as previous generations], and may have less resistance to those concepts. Ironically, the high level of opposition to President Trump, and the criticism he invites over his focus on corporate profits and self-serving words and actions, has provided some tailwind to socialism.

Opposition to and concerns about socialism are big obstacles. The universal health insurance advocated by the leftmost candidates will require large amounts of financial resources, and low- and middle-income earners are wary of any increase in taxes. The business community naturally has criticized some of Senator Warren's plans such as "breaking up large IT companies", but some of the general public have also criticized them as "perhaps too extreme".

In the Midwest, where the presidential race is is expected to be a severely contested, there seem to be many conservative Democrats and people unaffiliated with either party who do not want drastic reforms, pointing to a "limit in the extent of support for left wing candidates". In a nationwide US Gallup poll, respondents who answered that they had "a favorable opinion of socialism" remained at 39%.

Even if the Democratic Party nominates the leftmost candidate for president, it is inevitable that Trump will fight by trying to "disrupt current politics" and seek the support of low- and middle-income earners, with measures such as additional tax cuts.

"In the past, socialism had little recognition. Now, interest is high," said Steven (age 64) of Virginia. He has been involved in the socialist movement since the 1970s and expressed joy at this new interest. But he is concerned that highly educated young people stand out in the movement. "As we get further into the presidential race, it would be awful if lower income voters and voters in other parts of the country come to see us as 'elitist' and keep their distance."

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