PITTSBURG — Brian Matlock, a graduate student pursuing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in economics at the University of Missouri - Kansas City, launched a campaign last month for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by outgoing Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), running as a Republican Socialist. Yes, you read that correctly.
“I know it sounds like an oxymoron,” Matlock said in a recent interview with the Morning Sun on a trip through southeast Kansas.
Matlock is hoping to form a new coalition, he said, between “good neighbor Republicans” and “common sense Socialists.”
While Matlock is trying to unite these seemingly unlikely partners into an alliance across an ideological divide that may seem unbridgeable, he is also “both trying to create a new coalition but also divide some existing ones,” he said, “sort of trying to create a path that sort of average working people from both parties can ditch the corporate interests and do campaign finance reform, a lot of these sorts of things that put more power into the hands of the communities.”
Matlock explained how he arrived at what, for many, is a position they have probably never considered, perhaps because they have never heard of it, or because it sounds like a contradiction in terms.
“I did grow up as a Republican in a very red state of Idaho and have lived in red states my whole life,” Matlock said, adding that he remains a registered Republican, although he has also voted for third party candidates — “whoever I feel like is most likely to actually follow through on serving the people rather than just kind of being bought and paid for by corporate interests.”
Once an aspiring minister, and now not quite “an ardent atheist,” Matlock’s views began to change when he was working and volunteering at inner city churches and later a homeless shelter.
“I realized OK, there are a lot of big systemic issues where people are getting left out, and so came to try to understand the bigger picture systems in our economy, and I came to identify as a Socialist, basically meaning we should have an economy that meets the needs of people, like rather than people meeting the needs of the economy,” Matlock said.
“I think that what I realized is that a lot of the values that led me to that position came from my Republican parents, who growing up, they were just constantly like opening their homes to others, donating, volunteering, helping out their neighbors, and so there was a lot of value in that good neighbor Republican ethic.”
The Republican Party, Matlock said, “is a big tent” and it already includes “a lot of groups, like thinking about the evangelical voters — small town, like family, faith sort of thing — you have big business, libertarians, nationalists — who are not free market advocates, they’re about protectionism and things like that — and so it’s already pretty diverse and I think some parts of the Republican Party have resonance with Socialism.”
Republicans “emphasize local control a lot, which I am a fan of,” Matlock said. That being said, he is not a supporter of President Donald Trump.
Matlock said he embraces the term “progressive.” He is in favor of a “Green New Deal.” In many ways, he may sound like a Democrat. So what does he think about high-profile Kansas Democrats, like Gov. Laura Kelly, for example?
“I basically think she lacks some of the vision and ambition to meet people’s needs,” Matlock said. “Like I’m glad it was her over Kobach, honestly. I’m running against him, and I think he’s one of the most dangerous politicians in America, but I’m sick of choosing the lesser of evils.”
Kris Kobach, one of Matlock’s Republican — and much more well-known, if somewhat controversial — rivals for the Senate seat he’s running for, is “an extremist,” Matlock said, who “poses a unique threat to Kansas.”
What Matlock sees as a threat to Kansas, however, may not be limited to the state.
“What we’re seeing internationally is you have like some centrist, liberal party person versus a far-right nationalist,” he said, adding that he’s afraid more far-right nationalists will “continue to win if they’re the only ones who are recognizing the actual struggles that people in their communities have.”
Matlock acknowledges that the term “socialism” could be defined various ways, but for him it has a positive connotation.
“Socialism is sort of like the first goal of any economy, like how do we judge if an economy is doing well or not is whether or not we meet human human needs, whether or not we are able to focus on living our lives, doing the things we care about,” he said. “And so it’s sort of just saying our priorities shouldn’t be growth, but our priorities should be taking care of each other.”
In Kansas, many decades ago, Matlock noted, people who considered themselves socialists got a lot done in terms of organizing mine workers and forming farm cooperatives. He said he also understands there were problems with the central planners of the Soviet Union, however, which along with such historical episodes as the “Red Scare” led to socialism becoming an unpopular phrase among many in the U.S.
“There was a lot that kind of led to it dissolving in the U.S.,” he said. “But then, currently, it is a more urban, intellectual phenomenon and I think it is a huge problem that they haven’t continued in many cases to, like, organize around the needs of common, everyday people who work hard, and do deserve to like, have a decent life and have dignity, and not just be, you know, serfs on the plantation of corporate billionaires.”
Matlock is in favor of “Medicare for All.” He would also like to see a “locally administered jobs guarantee,” which would provide work at a “living wage” — which would also be the de facto minimum wage — to anyone who wants it.
He said he sees some problems with proposals for a universal basic income (UBI), such as Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s plan to give every American adult $1,000 per month. Matlock said this would “put huge upward pressure on the amount of hours worked and all these things” for those who continue to work after implementing UBI, and there would be no readily apparent way to keep prices stable.
“I think the job guarantee functions better on multiple levels,” he said.
When talking about his proposed jobs guarantee, Matlock sounded like he was saying workers hoping to earn more than they could through the federally-funded jobs program would continue to be able to seek better paying jobs in the private sector. When questioned further on the issue, however, he said he is “not long-term tied to a private sector in the traditional sense.”
Some of the largest-scale attempts to implement “Socialism,” Matlock acknowledged, such as those made by the governments of the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China, have not gone well.
“Did they actually represent the people? Did they actually meet the goals of like having an economy by the people, for the people? No they didn’t,” he said.
As for Karl Marx, meanwhile — who well over a century after his death probably remains the single biggest name associated with the socio-political economic philosophy known as “socialism” — Matlock is not convinced he had everything completely figured out, either.
“He points out some good critiques of capitalism,” Matlock said, “but he actually writes almost none about, like, what is the next thing.”
If you ask Brian Matlock, the next big thing might be Republican Socialism.