Artists Can Be OK With a Little Democratic Socialism

Five ways to get more politically active right now.

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Photo: Isai Ramos on Unsplash.

In case we’ve forgotten, we are a country at war. Unlike the publicly contested 20-year Vietnam War, with the looming threat of a national draft, the war in Afghanistan has been roaring, more quietly, since October 2001. Public funds are continuously siphoned off to support it while we turn our attention to other matters.

As we approach our 18th year of this conflict, let’s wrap our heads around the fact that this war costs us between $45 and $100 billion, or more, each year. Add to that amount that we spent on the Iraq War. Just think: In 2003, as JoJo Siwa of Dance Moms and Sophia Grace Brownlee of The Ellen Show were being born into this world, the US was committing to a war that would cost $1.7 trillion and counting, and so many lives.

It’s undeniable that the US supports its military financially and emotionally — and unconditionally. I have come to believe that the military and its contractors often abuse that support. The troops themselves are courageous; I never question the bravery it takes to enlist and to sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us. And much of what the military does is important, stellar, ethical work. What I question is the swelled budget. I also question the military’s rape culture, corruption and, well, the whole military-industrial complex.

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I’ve been thinking about what would have been possible if a chunk of the military money went to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its veterans arts therapy program to help those returning from the modern front lines. Imagine if the NEA’s tiny $155 million budget for this fiscal year was nearly doubled, imagine if $92 million for a one-day military parade, now scheduled for 2019, was allocated instead to ongoing arts programs in public schools, to artist residencies in libraries, to prescriptions and mental health clinics for artists, to paid family leave and other social welfare for artists, to arts workshops as part of police and military training, to public university tuition for arts majors, to — yikes. I’m starting to sound like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

So what can I — or you — do about any of this? I like lists. Here is a list I’ve developed of five ways artists may consider dipping our toes in a little deeper into current affairs.

1. (Re-) study the differences between capitalism, democratic socialism, socialism, communism and fascism, as well as democracy vs oligarchy and totalitarianism, and then imagine where arts and culture would fit into an America beyond those distinctions.

In the US, all of these terms have strong, often negative associations and reactions, often for good reason. That said, we should get beyond our gut reactions. Artists, like all citizens, need to be more informed and more politically active.

Socialism generally aims to have “fewer people getting rich in exchange for a planned society that makes sure everyone gets what they need.” Does it work in places like Sweden and Denmark?

Yes, [the Nordic countries] offer government-paid healthcare, in some cases tuition-free university educations, and rather generous social safety nets, all financed with high taxes.

However, it is possible to do these things without interfering in the private sector more than required. The Nordic countries were economic successes before they built their welfare states / it is allowing businesses to be productive that produces the high corporate and personal incomes that support the tax collections making the government benefits feasible.

I agree with Jeffrey Dorfman of Forbes that socialism in its purest form cannot and should never be implemented here in the US. But this is America: we need not copy other nations. We can learn from our past, use our present wealth, and make things right for our future with a checks-and-balance system on our greed.

Perhaps we can build a more innovative budget and economic system that:

  • Keeps public and strong, while finding ways to improve and maintain, at an appropriate level, fire departments, police, storm and emergency response, military (defense, security, veterans affairs), immigration, paying our debts, environmental protection, justice, and Track 1 diplomacy;
  • Keeps private but well-regulated, and grounded in the the Constitution, militias, faith-based organizations, farms, restaurants and grocery stores (aiming to tackle food deserts), retail, entertainment, technology, and journalism. This might be where Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act factors in;
  • Develops a more robust, accessible ecosystem of both private and public funds for arts and culture, education, housing, and healthcare — including paramedics for religious conservatives — plus infrastructure and civil works, energy, transportation, aeronautics and space science, and Tracks 2-3 diplomacy.

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2. Pay attention to public budgets and expenditures management, in relationship to freedom of expression.

I’ve only informally studied economic or political theory on my own time, so I am no expert. Yet I deeply care that funds go where they’re needed. I am confident that just by raising the thoughts in this article, such a debate will be healthy for many of us. We need to study up and stay vigilant as to how public monies are spent, locally and nationally.

We need to think beyond assumptions and tendencies. For example, if I were to have lunch with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, I would agree with her about school choice — in theory. That might surprise many of you. But I would stress to her that real school choice is not an option in modern America, that school choice only works when public schools receive adequate resources to compete and to address the compounded legacies of under-funding, housing segregation and discrimination, and racial and cultural inequities.

Coupled to this conversation must be our First Amendment rights — especially freedom of expression. Read Harvard Law School’s one-pager on Government and the Arts, the 1990 Arts Midwest report Freedom of Expression in the Arts, the 2002 Free Expression Policy Project policy report Free Expression in Arts Funding, and resources from the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression through the National Coalition Against Censorship.

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3. Get active. Make voting cool. Canvas and publicly support a mix of good candidates, including one or two democratic socialists, in addition to good folks across and within party lines.

Artists may hesitate to get politically involved. Capitalism and market influences often lead to self-censorship; we create and maintain a certain brand in our fundraising, marketing — even in art-making. Fortunately, political or civic involvement doesn’t necessarily mean becoming an activist or driving away potential audiences and supporters. Just setting a good example and motivating general excitement are enough.

Now is a great time to promote voter registration at all cultural events. We can contribute — artistically — to upcoming marches and demonstrations (Chicago March to the Polls is planned for Oct. 13) or any rally with a positive intention.

And if we choose to support a candidate like a self-identified democratic socialist, we can do it in balance. A large percentage of Americans believe that higher taxes and government support of things like the arts will lead to us becoming a poorer country where government tells us what to do (even if public arts funding, in the aggregate, represents an incredibly tiny fraction of overall spending). I trust the strength of our Constitution and the systems of our democracy to prevent the Marxist slide from capitalism to socialism to communism. I believe that a democratic socialist, working alongside a mainstream Democrat and a moderate Republican, would be brilliant. Why not support candidates based on platform, policy, skill, experience and character? Maybe more artists will even consider running for office themselves.

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4. Make work that builds democratic peace or confronts the seeds of fascism.

In Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, author Robert D. Kaplan describes how communism is often “under the guise of social justice.” My right-wing friends and family often accuse us progressives of this.

Kaplan also details how “tyranny creates a social vacuum.” Imagine all artists being controlled by the state — or by pure capitalism. He quotes a 1998 prediction of Mihai Oroveanu, director of Romania’s Ministry of Culture:

I fear a return to intolerance and superstition, helped by computers. You could easily have slick materialism without morality.

Artists, like journalists, have a role in reporting and reflecting on our political and social progressions all over the country. I believe we also hold responsibility for identifying and challenging the situation when we encounter these signs of fascism:

  • A focus on nationalism and devotion to country above all else;
  • A focus on military/pro-war;
  • Organizing everything like the military;
  • Authoritarianism/dictatorship/strong leader;
  • Using violence in politics;
  • Glorifying youth and masculinity/misogyny;
  • Demanding a single way of life or a socially acceptable lifestyle;
  • An obsession with heritage and tradition.

Jason Stanley’s upcoming book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, looks like it will be a good resource for this process.

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5. Stay American: weird and hard-working.

Americans are world-renowned for their individualism and work ethic. Those are especially great qualities for we Americans who happen to be artists.

Americans are also called loud, brash, egotistical, arrogant, self-absorbed and self-obsessed. As Kenni Friis, a 28-year-old computer technology student in Copenhagen, Denmark, explained to CBS:

Americans are American because they feel (they are) better than the rest of the world but in reality we are as good as they are. They simply don’t see us as their equal … but we are. Sometimes we are even better than them…but don’t tell them…

Many people outside the US consider President Trump to be a sort of Frankenstein monster created out of our worst traits, among them greed, racism and sexism. That we elected this man speaks volumes around the world, but I doubt that Trump supporters care what the world thinks. Trump culture is unconcerned with likability and ally-cultivation.

While the international perception may be that the US is fulfilling its prophecy of ultimate arrogance, power, consumption and obesity, we, alternatively, can lean into our reputation for altruism. We can establish cultural and social expectations across borders, based on the idea of a basic human decency. We can better advocate for arts and culture as human rights (yes, including all American humans) and we can learn how to better how to address when cultural rights conflict with human rights.

We can question our assumptions and we can bring cultural relativism into our art-making and arts-management practices. For example, we can consider how people pay for the arts — cash vs credit culture — by learning from the social implications of cash-based societies i in The Philippines, Germany and Japan. We can look toward revolutionary countries, such as Egypt, to study the value of spontaneity and flexibility.

America First: but never blindly so. To criticize this country is to love it. To expect better of America is to value America. To care for others is to care for ourselves. It’s time for artists to make some intentional shifts in order to push our country along the path of progress.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.