I make my living using words and images to convince people to buy things or take action, so it’s interesting to see how a simple word such as "socialism" can wield such power and engender such a polarizing and vitriolic reaction. Socialism is viewed by many—Republicans and Democrats, conservatives as well as liberals—as a dirty word.
For years, Bernie Sanders has proudly embraced the moniker of socialist—as Mayor of Burlington and later as an Independent Socialist representative to Congress. Lately, however, as the media spotlight intensifies, even Bernie is inching away from the term and trying to provide a more qualified version of the word, calling himself a Democratic Socialist. I wonder if Bernie’s Democratic Socialist principles differ that radically from the principles of some of his opponents.
If Bernie is a Democratic Socialist, then so too are the majority of Republican and Democratic candidates and the millions of Americans who support them. Hillary Clinton is going to great lengths to claim that she is a Democrat, period. Although Clinton shares many of Sanders’s views, she runs from the mere mention of socialism or Democratic Socialism. The words are just too polarizing.
Recently, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio praised Bernie Sanders and his honesty in admitting his socialist views. "I don't think it works for America," Rubio said. "My argument is, you want to live in a country like that—there's like dozens of countries around the world that are Socialist—move there. We should continue to be America." This is the same Rubio who said in a speech at the National Press Club in May 2014, “The Medicare program is essential to maintaining a secure, healthy, and comfortable retirement for seniors.”
Why does the word "socialism" invoke such fear and anger among so many?
Witness the power of a word and the use of it to change perception and alter attitudes and behavior. Socialism in its truest form has never existed anywhere, even in the pre-capitalist regimes of the former Soviet Union and China.
There are multiple definitions of the word. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, socialism is “a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.” A more nuanced view is that a socialist government can achieve its goals by using taxes to redistribute resources in its population to help those in need, while still preserving the system of private property and the opportunity to build wealth.
A second definition defines socialism as “a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.”
Socialist aspects of American government have been around for some time. If socialism is such a dirty word, then why is it that two bedrock programs, Medicare and Medicaid, established in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of 1965, are both considered sacred cows not to be cut or eliminated by the very people who cringe at the mere mention of socialism?
By the definition of socialism, Medicare and Medicaid are, in fact, socialist programs, as is Social Security. They operate by having government take money from one group of people and transfer it to another.
Bernie Sanders is a self-avowed socialist, but he has lots of company on both sides of the aisle. Former presidential candidate and governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, established the single-payer health care system known as RomneyCare, viewed by many as a blueprint for the oft-vilified ObamaCare. Donald Trump and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee warn of dire consequences if Medicare and Medicaid are repealed and privatized. This is the captain of capitalism and free enterprise Donald Trump we’re talking about. Newly minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has for years proposed creating a Medicare voucher-based program in which private insurance would be purchased with federal subsidies. The federal subsidies have to come from somewhere, right?
Is it wrong or un-American to agree that one of the principal fundamentals of a democratic government is a safety net, which involves a certain redistribution of wealth to help those who sometimes can’t help themselves? It doesn’t make you a communist or perhaps even, god forbid, a socialist. Or does it?
Have we really reached such a low point in our civil discourse that a simple word can be used to paint someone or their political views as anti-American? Have we not advanced beyond the red-baiting McCarthy era that was such a black eye for this country? I wonder how many people who call themselves free market, free enterprise, limited-government voters actually enjoy, or plan to enjoy, the benefits of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Somewhere along the way, the word "socialism" has been coopted to mean that a government safety net is one step further along the Marxist continuum to a Communist state.
A simple word, used oftentimes out of context and for political gain, is a powerful weapon.
I guess there are more socialists out there than I thought. I think socialism could use a good PR agency.