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'Socialism' Isn't The Scare Word It Once Was

Thanks to the presidential election, "socialism" and "capitalism" were Merriam-Webster's most-looked-up words of the year in 2012.
Richard Drew
Thanks to the presidential election, "socialism" and "capitalism" were Merriam-Webster's most-looked-up words of the year in 2012.

Time was when the word "socialism" had a firm footing in the American political lexicon, with as many meanings as it has collected in all the other nations where it has taken root — as mixed or pure, as planned or market, as democratic or authoritarian, as a dogma or simply an aspiration — "the name of our desire," as the critic Irving Howe (and Lewis Coser) famously defined it. But once the native socialist movement crumbled in the 1920s, the right compacted the word into a single term of abuse. It became the "S-word," as John Nichols of The Nation magazine titled his recent history of socialism in America.

From Social Security and unemployment insurance to Medicare and the Affordable Health Care Act, Republicans have labeled every social welfare program proposed by the Democrats as "socialist," "socialistic" or "creeping socialism," a phrase coined by Thomas Dewey in 1939. Give socialism a foothold, they say, and nothing can arrest the slide to perdition. In 1936, Herbert Hoover said that FDR's socialist policies were leading America on a march to Moscow. With the fall of the Soviet empire a half-century later, Republicans had to redirect that road to a warmer destination.

As Vice President Pence told the Conservative Political Action Committee in March, "We know where socialism leads. If you want socialism, just look at Venezuela." But the logic hasn't changed since Hoover's time. Passing universal health care or a $15 minimum wage is like picking up a Monopoly card that says, "Go directly to Caracas. Do not pass Stockholm."

Until recently, Democrats dismissed those charges as fear-mongering. In 1952, Harry Truman called "socialism" a scare word and said that when a Republican said, "Down with socialism!" he really meant "Down with progress!"

But the S-word isn't quite as spine-chilling now, particularly to millennials. They have no memory of the Cold War — for many, the fall of the Berlin Wall is just one of a mash of '80s film clips, along with the Exxon Valdez, Pac-Man and Boy George. The upheaval that shaped their political perceptions was the financial meltdown of the mid-2000s. That made them keenly aware of the mayhem that Godzilla capitalism could wreak and of the economic inequality that the Occupy movement captured with quantitative precision with the new phrase "the one percent."

Socialism began to sound like a needed corrective, particularly once it was personified by a cantankerous old senator from Vermont and a young congresswoman from New York with a digital native's talent for social media —both of them "avowed socialists," as the media sometimes describe them, in the way they've traditionally referred to "avowed atheists" and "avowed homosexuals."

By 2018 a majority of millennials, including quite a few Republicans, said they had a positive view of socialism. Not all of those who look kindly on socialism go on to label themselves as socialists or democratic socialists. To many of them, the word evokes phrases like "the social contract," which has also been in the air a lot lately.

But however they describe themselves, the great majority of millennials associate socialism with New Deal-style programs like universal health care and access to free higher education, not state control of business. And while they give low marks to capitalism, they aren't hostile to free markets — in fact, an overwhelming majority say they approve of the free enterprise system. That's not a contradiction — it's the difference between accepting the rules of the game and saying it could be played a little more decently. After all, you can love football but hate the NFL.

The fact is that most of the millennial fans of socialism don't see the role of government that differently from the people who still call themselves progressives or liberals, though they tend to be more dogged about it. To conservatives, that just means that millennials don't know the true meaning of the word socialism. Conservatives often seem to assign magical powers to that word — call yourself a socialist and you summon the specter of Stalin, whether you meant to or not. You think you're calling for guaranteed health care but you're really calling for gulags and collectivization.

Actually, as John Nichols points out, the recent popularity of socialism has a lot to do with the way the right-wing media slathered the word over Barack Obama and his programs — popularity aside.

That's a risk Republicans run when they frame the Democrats' positions as socialistic — they may inadvertently detoxify the brand, particularly when the connections to Marxism are hard to discern. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently denounced what he called the Democrats' "radical, half-baked socialist proposal" to make Election Day a federal holiday. But more than two-thirds of Americans think that's a good idea, and if that makes them socialists, well, what's to be frightened of?

A lot of voters are still skittish about socialism, so that all the Democratic hopefuls other than Sanders have had to forswear the label — though as the Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum noted, it's not as if that will stop Republicans from calling them socialists anyway. But it's no longer exclusively the Republicans' word to define or demonize — it's a contested label now, just as "conservative" is on the right. It isn't yet clear where "socialist" will settle in the vocabulary of the American left, as it jostles with labels like "liberal" and "progressive." But it's not the S-word anymore. That might be the most consequential change in American political language since the era when Herbert Hoover was walking the Earth.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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