Ben Jealous isn't a socialist, but he's sure touchy about being called one

Ben Jealous sure is touchy about being called a socialist. One of his first major television interviews after he secured the Democratic nomination for governor featured a flailing exchange on CNBC in which he tried, unsuccessfully, to brush away the question. He recently used the f-word at a news conference when a reporter asked him whether he identified as a socialist. And now his campaign is demanding that Baltimore TV stations stop airing a Republican Governors Association ad branding him as one, arguing that their broadcast licenses could be at risk for airing demonstrably false information.

Before we get into the murky terrain of just what a “socialist” is, let’s get a few things straight:

First, the ad in question is blatantly misleading. It uses a clip from the CNBC interview in which Mr. Jealous says, “go ahead, call me a socialist, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a venture capitalist,” only it omits the second half of the sentence. But politics ain’t beanbag. We’re no experts in the law surrounding standards of accuracy in independent expenditure ads, but we would be concerned about courts or federal regulatory agencies getting involved in determining what is a true or untrue in a political campaign. The boundaries of political speech in an electoral context are, and should be, broad.

Second, socialism is an economic and political philosophy. Venture capitalist is an occupation. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, which is perhaps why Mr. Jealous’ turn of phrase has not magically caused the socialism question to disappear. It’s like saying, “I’m not a capitalist. I’m a librarian.” True, a venture capitalist’s business is in investing private funds in private enterprises with the expectation of a return, which is certainly squarely within the bounds of capitalism. But the kind of socially responsible investing Mr. Jealous engaged in vaguely jibes with some of the various definitions of socialism that set as a goal not a revolution against capitalism but a gradual evolution through support for co-ops and other more benevolent enterprises.

Third, we obviously don’t condone the use of profanity in political discourse, particularly in an attempt to dismiss a legitimate question from a reporter. But let’s not act all shocked here that a politician used a four-letter word. If Baltimore gained a resident for every time William Donald Schaefer cursed during an interaction with a reporter, it would be roughly the size of New York. Our read on the situation is that the moment reveals frustration on Mr. Jealous’ part that he’s been getting hammered (unfairly in his view) by the Hogan campaign and its allies, but it was a clear tactical mistake. It belies the confidence he was trying to portray that very day in a press briefing on poll numbers he argues show him within striking distance of the Republican incumbent, and it gave the Hogan campaign another opportunity to paint him as extreme while simultaneously distancing the governor from Trump-style rhetoric. Mr. Jealous can’t afford unforced errors like that. The Hogan team is good; hang a slider over the plate, and they’ll crush it.

Mr. Jealous apologized on Twitter and finally said what he should have in the first place: “I have never referred to myself as a socialist and would not govern as one.”

But is he? No, at least not by any conventional definition of the word.

Reading through Wikipedia entries on socialism isn’t so much like going down a rabbit hole as entering a prairie dog colony — there are all kinds of offshoots and connections and an army of political scientists who try to characterize it all. But the basic gist is that a socialist believes in the replacement of capitalism with collective ownership of wealth and the means of production. If you look for that in Mr. Jealous’ platform (or, for that matter, in Sen. Bernie Sanders’), you won’t find it. The governor calls Mr. Jealous a socialist because he wants to create a state-level single-payer health care system and to provide free college tuition on a broader scale than Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed. That’s not socialism (although Republicans have been calling it that since the days when Ronald Reagan was first hitting the public speaking circuit in the ‘50s and early ‘60s). The list of capitalist countries with some version of single-payer health care or even direct government-run medicine is long. In fact, the U.S. is in the distinct minority among industrialized, capitalist nations in not having such a system. Mr. Jealous is also correct that the federal and state governments used to cover a much larger share of the costs of higher education than they do today. Were supporters of the G.I. Bill socialists?

In the age of Bernie Sanders, progressives are using the terms “socialism” or “Democratic socialism” less in any classic sense of what they mean but rather to denote a break from what they consider the more cautious, centrist policies espoused by the Democratic Party establishment. Mr. Jealous fits that description — his platform is far bolder than that of Maryland Democrats’ last nominee for governor — but that doesn’t actually make him a socialist.

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