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“Be Open to Radically Different Points of View”: Nathan Robinson Explains the Merits of Democratic Socialism

With the rise of self-described democratic socialist politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party has seen an unprecedented leftward shift in recent years. Nathan Robinson, founder and Editor-in-Chief of “Current Affairs” Magazine and Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University, addressed the significance of this political realignment in his talk “Democratic Socialism and the Future of American Politics.”

The presentation, which took place on Monday, February 11 in Kemper Auditorium, was sponsored by the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. In his talk, Robinson considered the growing schism between liberals and democratic socialists on the American left. For Robinson, the centrist ideologies of liberals will not suffice if Americans want to tackle the nation’s most pressing issues.

“I think that the liberalism of [Hillary] Clinton, [former Senator and Secretary of State], and [former President Barack] Obama has proved itself inadequate to deal with some of our most important human challenges. I don’t think it appreciates how people are exploited at work. I don’t think it has good solutions for how to fix the Detroit schools. I don’t think it can take the radical action necessary on climate change,” said Robinson during the talk.

Robinson continued, “I’m not advocating a fixed set of policies, but I am explaining why young people have been so eager to embrace democratic socialism, not because they have nostalgia for the Soviet Union but because they see that those who call themselves capitalists, regardless of how you define that term specifically, simply don’t have answers to some of the important questions.”

After reading “Current Affairs,” Derek Curtis, Programming and Digital Content Producer and Adjunct Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, decided to invite Robinson to campus. Curtis, a democratic socialist, spoke about his frustration when confronting the problems in American society.

“I speak as a democratic socialist, [and] the big thing that resonates for me is the level of deep dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs both in the United States and in many other countries. Given the vast amount of wealth that we have and that we’re capable of using to better a broad array of public services and public goods for more people, the fact that we don’t do it I think is really damning,” said Curtis.

Matthew Cline ’19, President of Phillips Academy Democrats, noted how far-left political opinions like Robinson’s are a rarity on both the Andover campus and in mainstream media. Cline explained that this drew him to the event in the hopes of being exposed to an alternate point of view.

“It’s the liberals that more so identify with centrism and being a moderate, that I think have a lot of the real estate on the national stage and in national news. Nathan Robinson is a really proud far-left liberal, which is a voice I don’t think gets heard a lot and I don’t think is heard as often as you would expect on this campus,” said Cline.

Cline mentioned Robinson’s point about the difficulties of unified thinking in politics, an opinion that Cline feels is underrepresented in the current political climate. According to Cline, Robinson has an optimistic outlook and understands that collaboration is crucial to consolidation.

“Robinson is very open to say: ‘I don’t know all the answers, and I don’t necessarily know the exact policy solution to this one conversation, but what I do know is that there’s a problem with things as they are now and that if we together just put our heads to it, we can think of new solutions that are better reflective of values that we should aspire to as a country,’ which I think was a tone of political voice that isn’t heard often enough,” said Cline.

While Clara Tu ’21 understood Robinson’s philosophical ideology, she questioned the mechanics of putting them into practice. Overall, Tu was skeptical of what she felt to be a utopian yet impractical ideology.

Tu said, “As I was listening to tonight’s presentation, the philosophy of wanting to understand the oppressed and how everyone deserves an education like [Andover] and how we all have this moral instinct, really stood out to me. However, as he was explaining these ideas, what kept popping up in my mind was that although these sound great, they’re very utopian… the question that was always at the forefront of my brain was, ‘How?’”

Ryan Owyang ’19 echoed Tu’s sentiment, expanding on how he felt Robinson did not make productive claims about democratic socialism and instead expounded on the more broad, theoretical aspects of it.

“[Robinson] didn’t take any policy positions. He made broad ideological claims that can’t really be refuted like we should help people who are in need. He more explained the socialist impulse rather than what I think is the more refuted element of socialism which is how do you manifest it in policy, and I was disappointed that I didn’t hear more about that,” said Owyang.

Though Philip Matteini ’19 disagreed with some of Robinson’s political views, he appreciated the opportunity to expand his outlook on the future of liberal politics in America by listening to an optimistic view of often negative political discourse.

“I think democratic socialism is a really interesting phenomenon that’s very relevant in today’s politics, so beforehand, I had read some of his tweets and also some of his work on Current Affairs. And although I didn’t agree with probably 99 percent of it, I could tell this was someone who really understands politics and someone who is really trying to be a positive voice in today’s American political discourse,” said Matteini.

Pointing to the issues that Americans now face, Robinson emphasized the necessity in modern politics free oneself of the types of ideological constraints that inhibit progress.

“You live in a very important and interesting time to be young because there are so many impending problems that it’s going to depend on our generation to solve, and those problems are going to require incredibly creative and bold thinking. So you shouldn’t be constrained by existing consensus. You shouldn’t be constrained by what has been done before. You shouldn’t be afraid to challenge people around you, to make people around you uncomfortable in a certain way,” said Robinson.

Feb 15, 2019