The Forbidden Word in America: Socialism
America’s deep and complicated relationship with socialism.
Despite the negative public opinion of socialism in America, the most popular government programs––Social Security and Medicare––are rooted in socialist ideals.
By 1912, The Socialist Party elected over 150 local officials in over 30 states. It was clear to both parties that socialism was on the rise in the United States during this time––primarily due to the robber barons, monopolies, and greed that besieged the common interests of workers. Nonetheless and similarly, it has been the rollbacks of Wall Street regulation like the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, big tech monopolies, bank bailouts, student debt and healthcare crises that has caused some Americans to start bringing that forbidden word back into the fray: Socialism.
Paranoia around socialism has been embedded into the American fabric the past century, especially after World War II as ongoing tensions between the US and the communist Soviet Union prompted crackdowns and the blackmailing of communists and communist sympathizers. Conflating socialism with communism or a statist form of government is still a commonality from the Cold War, but most Americans do not know and can’t even agree on what socialism is. More importantly, the differences between Democratic Socialism and socialism are not discussed as much as they should be in public discourse and that is why public opinion on this issue has been skewed.
With socialism consistently associated with countries in turmoil like Venezuela, it is no coincidence why most Americans have a negative view of it. Bernie Sanders introduced Democratic Socialism to most of the American public during his historic 2016 presidential run. But it is rarely ever associated with European social democracies like Sweden or Denmark which he references regularly and both routinely rank as the happiest countries in the world according to the United Nations. It’s easier to be at ease when your not as vulnerable of losing your health insurance along with your job and social safety nets are intact.
To contrast with 1912, the Democratic Socialists of America elected at least 20 officials across the federal, state, and city level in 2020 and some are skeptical of this becoming some sort of socialist revolution. However, just as it was then, there has been an incredible pushback by both major parties, especially Republicans who will attribute any idea from a Democrat to socialism––even if it really isn’t. It has almost become a habit for Republicans to accuse the presidential Democratic nominee of being a socialist every four years.
However, many of these so-called socialist ideas like a $15 minimum living wage, single-payer healthcare, or free public colleges are popular amongst the American public and the vast majority of them exist in most developed countries, but many Americans are turned off when the stigma of socialism is attached to them due to its negative perception. Fears driven by propaganda around higher taxes, basic freedoms being taken away, and ‘free stuff’ being given to the least among us have been the indictments against socialism. What we miss is that the US spends more per capita with private health insurance, social democracies in Europe are afforded most of the same freedoms we do, and this ‘free stuff’ are actually our tax dollars being invested back into us instead of endless wars.
How these ideas have been framed in mainstream media is a byproduct of our historical framework in relation to socialism. Most millennials were not around to remember most of the Cold War, so the hysteria and panic of that era is not as relevant and it is likely why a majority of millennials would vote for a socialist. In addition, they also have an unfavorable view on capitalism, which could be a result of the US undergoing two major recessions during their formative years (2008, 2020).
When it comes to progressive ballot initiatives, they are not only popular in blue left-leaning states, but they also do well in red conservative states as we observed on Election Day. Due to these outcomes, it would suggest that policy still matters and should be the focus of candidates instead of debating around the stigma of socialism or what label one ascribes to. This would be an endless debate that does not move our means to an end.
– Peace be unto you.