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Socialism, rhetoric and American politics

How much political power does one word hold? We like to think of the media and politicians as messengers of unbiased facts. But the state of the political game today proves otherwise. Reporters play on the fears of their audience much like a jungle cat toys with its prey. One of the most powerful words in their arsenal is one that connotes images of dictators, of corruption and of oppression. It is a word that we have seen no shortage of in recent American political campaigns — the “S” word.

Socialism.

Political scientists Toff and Kim explain how calculated word usage (or the lack thereof) among politicians and the American media proves to be a meaningful insight into their partisan intentions. In the case of the “S” word, these intentions are generally negative and appearing with startling frequency in American politics. In Toff and Kim’s 2013 Twitter analysis of politicians and media personnel, they found 42 instances of the word “socialism,” with the large majority of usage coming from Republicans.

Why does this matter? Well, if we consider what “socialism” is, a doctrine that calls for public rather than private control of property and natural resources, it’s obvious that the United States’ gigantic private economic sector is anything but socialist. Ranked in the top ten countries worldwide for economic competitiveness, the United States’ success rests on high private investment and productivity.

Nonetheless, Obama has been accused of being a socialist, and strangely enough, even a more radical communist. However, in different rankings of political ideology based on congressional voting record, fundraising and public issue statements, Obama isn’t even on the farthest left on the spectrum, let alone venturing into socialist territory. Rather, other noteworthy politicians pride themselves on being much more extreme liberals. Elizabeth Warren is often referred to as a progressive icon with her strong anti-Wall Street rhetoric. Bernie Sanders is perhaps the most famous and successful American politician to call himself a socialist.

These more radical politicians are breaking from the typical party lines on the premise that the American public is disenchanted with the two-party dominated system. These beliefs are not unfounded, with public opinion polls showing that 58 percent of Democrats agree that political and economic systems are stacked against them, and 51 percent of Republicans feeling the same.

In an industrialized country that is still one of the top ten nations in the world with the highest income inequality, a country that still has yet to treat health care as a human right, and a country where the rich elite can still spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns, this widespread dissatisfaction is not surprising. In fact, it is justified. With the United States still in this state of drastic inequality, it seems embracing some of the objectives of socialism may actually be a decent idea for our government.

If being a socialist means believing in a universal healthcare system or believing that the bottom 90 percent of society in the United States should have more opportunities and more than only 25 percent of the wealth of the nation, then yes, maybe I am a socialist.

By socialism I do not mean a regime modeled after Cuba or China. I do not believe in the eradication of private property or the suppression of free will that Republicans are quick to associate with socialism. I mean a belief in a type of democratic socialism that would decrease the influence of money in politics and foster government action to deal with the severe income inequalities — not to nationalize businesses or control the economy. I mean a new breed of politicians that break away from more traditional moderate party lines to address the controversial problems that plague the country. Bernie Sanders is just one example of someone who can challenge the status quo and address ways that the United States can help economic recovery reach all social classes.

Yes, America is the land of freedom, but free will and democratic socialism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the right to believe in the ideals of socialism are part of this freedom. Republicans were the founders of the House Un-American Activities Committee, established to investigate alleged communist activities back in 1938, and they continue to publicly shame any hint of socialist ideas in politics. This ostracism of socialist ideas in American politics by the right wing is ironic, considering the fact that individual freedom is one of the foundations of their values.

The “S” word was once reserved only for descriptions of oppressive regimes. The ill-intentioned use of it in mainstream media to describe American politicians can be a turning point. What was once a pejorative label now has the opportunity to become a more progressive form of American liberalism. Not every aspect of socialism is radical or anti-democratic. Some of the ideals of working towards equality of economic opportunity and dealing with the excesses of money in politics would be beneficial to our country that has been entrenched in the two party lines for so long. It’s time to move beyond our old perceptions of the “S” word and embrace a new version of democratic socialism in American politics.

Contact Aimee Trujillo at aimeet ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Politics is a heated business, as the debates on the floors of the U.S. House and Senate have proven time and again. Some debates in the 1850s even became heated enough to turn into all-out brawls between rival members or factions of Congress. In more-recent years, though, members of Congress have instead limited themselves to verbal attacks on one another, including a good deal of what can only be described as name-calling.

In fairness, we can find examples of political figures hurling epithets at their rivals even as far back as the days of our Founders. But in twenty-first century politics, one epithet seems to have dominance over all the others: “socialist.”

This phenomenon isn’t even limited to one ideological camp. Some on the left will call right-wingers “Nazis” (a shortened form of the phrase “National Socialists”) because of their stances on social issues, and some on the right will call left-wingers “socialists” more directly because of their stances on economic issues. Regardless of which party’s card they carry, many politicians try to paint their opponents as connected to socialism in some way as a political tactic.

But though doing so may make sense, overusing the tactic ultimately is not very helpful.

After spending half of the last century combating socialism in the forms of European fascism and Soviet communism, it isn’t surprising that the tactic has found so much use. A 2012 Rasmussen study suggests that about two of every three people in the United States see socialism as inherently negative, and it seems that those major forms of socialism have become imprinted on our national psyche as evil incarnate. After all, those ideologies have helped justify some of the most brutal, repressive and genocidal regimes in history, and at its core, socialism constitutes a direct threat to the ideas of freedom and democratic republicanism that have defined our nation since its inception. Trying to show opponents as in-league with those terrible forces could do a great deal to discredit their views, particularly as the continued moral bankruptcy of socialism means that the only place that should be left for it in the twenty-first century is the rubbish bin of history.

Even so, socialism has not found its way there yet. Even as you read this column, nations from Cuba to North Korea control what information reaches their populations through censorship, persecute those who strive for freedom and otherwise repress their people on a daily basis; without doing so, the tyrannical apparatus of socialism in those countries would collapse. And though the vast majority of people in our nation view socialism with disdain, the same Rasmussen study suggests that about one in four do not. Our current Congress even includes Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist who caucuses with the Democrats.

And so, the specter of socialism still haunts the U.S., particularly in the form of social democracy, which strives as an ideology to gradually wear down capitalist systems from the inside over many years and use “progressive” reforms to gradually replace them with socialist systems. We rightly still fear how such an ideology could undermine the respect of basic freedoms and rights that our society is still working to perfect, and calling out any politician whose views even resemble socialist ones seems to have become our main approach to guard against it.

Often, there is a ring of truth to accusations of socialism against political figures in D.C. or state capitals, particularly after considering the policies and positions of big-government conservatives and progressives alike. Obama’s signature healthcare law, for example, falls into a wider spectrum of government actions trying to force more equitable access to healthcare and medicine that was first championed by social democrats and socialists in Europe. Even the seemingly innocuous blue laws still in effect across parts of the South have analogues in the government-mandated morality of many socialist regimes.

But ultimately, continuing to call opponents “Nazis,” “communists” or any other such epithet as frequently as we do only serves to weaken the importance and direness of those words. The fact that some cable news commentator is nearly guaranteed to call an opponent one of those words at some point each week is akin to the fabled boy who cried “Wolf!” — rather than actually warning us of real danger, that commentator is inuring us against warnings of danger altogether.

While the accusation of socialism still stings and may still even help decide elections, the voting public here in the United States has simply heard those same accusations too much for them to remain effective as political weapons for much longer. Once they cease to have that efficacy, even calling out an actual manifestation of unadulterated socialism would probably seem like little more than useless political grandstanding.

That’s a dangerous prospect facing us, since despite the fact that the Iron Curtain fell over two decades ago, the danger posed by socialism still exists. Should it ever come to our shores, I doubt we’ll listen to anyone who warns us it’s here.

Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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