This year’s presidential election cycle has brought some unlikely candidates to center stage. Among them is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist. Since the beginning of his campaign, he has been attacked because of his political self-identification; Donald Trump apparently doesn’t understand the difference between his views and those of a Communist.
The American people are clearly confused about what socialism is and how it’s different from democratic socialism, and how that would be different from what we have now. And that confusion is being manipulated to divide people, to create fear in people, and ultimately to serve different, sometimes unclear agendas.
So here’s the skinny: only 36% of Americans have a positive view of socialism. According to Pew Research Center, “socialism is a far more divisive word (than capitalism), with wide differences of opinion along racial, generational, socioeconomic and political lines.” Nine in ten Republicans have a negative view of socialism.
Basically, we don’t like the s-word. But is this a problem? Well, for one thing, it stifles the political process when people label each other and follow up with dislike or ideological distaste for that imposed label. This happens on all sides; liberals, conservatives, and independents are all guilty of this.
However, that’s not the central issue here: what is more interesting is that Americans are a whole lot more “socialist” than they might think.
Pew Research found that almost 70% of Americans think that the government should do “a lot” or at least “some” to combat inequality, a mindset that has many socialist leanings. According to Gallup, 63% of Americans think that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed.” That smells of redistribution, a phrase most Americans (and Joe the Plumber) scoff at. YouGov found that only 41% of Americans disagree with the idea of making public universities tuition-free. Pew reported that 54% want to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to expand programs for the poor. They also found that 64% think “corporations don’t pay their fair share.” Again, more socialist tendencies.
Those are some big numbers, definitely raising some questions worth investigating. Even those on the right have some positions that lean this way. Pew found that 59% of people who consider themselves “consistently conservative” oppose any cuts to Social Security, and 12% actually support increasing it. Somewhat ironically, some Republicans organizations “have been running ads attacking embattled Red-state Democrats for not being sufficiently supportive of Social Security.” If it isn’t obvious enough, the program title “Social Security” literally has the word “social” in it. Need more be said?
This reality is apparent in our current governmental structures and programs. The American system is already heavily reliant on social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment benefits, government subsidies of various sectors, and Social Security. These systems, while not embracing full-fledged socialism, sound pretty democratically socialist to me.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that most Americans (or even many) are straight-up socialist. Voting records suggest quite the opposite. And this also isn’t meant to be a defense of socialism.
What I am saying, however, is that attacks on the label of democratic socialists, which looks to combine many aspects of our system with socialized programs in health care, education, and others, are generally exaggerated or at least partially unfounded. More often than not, these attacks appeal to fear rather than logic or reality.
So the real question worth asking here is why Americans can maintain these socialist tendencies while consistently condemning the word “socialist” itself. The answer, USA Today suggests, could lie in history: “For many Americans the word ‘socialism’ still carries the associations with authoritarianism that it acquired during the Cold War.” When people hear the word “socialist”, their minds quickly turn to “communism” and notions of general tyranny. So in practice, when Chris Christie (incorrectly) calls Sanders a socialist, the minds of many Americans fly to the former Soviet Russia and its authoritarian oppression. Pretty soon, a poor, well-intentioned democratic socialist becomes the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984.
This is not only inaccurate, but also counterproductive. In the era of massive party sorting, it is becoming harder and harder for real compromise to take place. And as long as Americans continue calling each other names, the political system will stay stuck in the muck. And as long as we don’t understand our own views, it will be even harder to address real problems that are hurting real people. It’s time to stop the name calling. Socialize that, America.