The “S” Word And Its Strange American Career

In European Politics, History and Politics, Political Ideology, Politics, Social Democracy on July 15, 2009 at 11:42 am

“Christ, do I hate socialism and socialists. Scum like Daraka – esp. his spiritual brethren running the Legislature – are why I left CA in the first place.”
- Joseph Turner, comment on Flashreport.com

Socialism. Is there a more dreaded word in American politics? Judging from the talking points of Republicans and their cheerleaders, there just couldn’t be. Granted, the histrionics over at Fox News does remind one of a hundred Chicken Littles with a hundred little doomsday messages. When everything is a sign of the sky falling, it’s hard to be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, the argument that the Obama Administration is leading the country on a long march to socialism is pretty unavoidable nowadays.

As is generally the case in the facile world of American political discourse, one can find a lot of irony in conservatives’ over-use of the “socialism” charge. Last Fall, it was easy to hear Sarah Palin boast that in her bucolic State, natural resources are owned by the “people of Alaska”, and so it’s only natural that every Citizen receives an annual check paid from oil receipts. She would then go on to snidely readbait the bejeezus out of Obama’s health care, taxation and public investment plans. I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if some crazy Democrat ran for Governor of California calling for the people to take ownership over our considerable natural resources. I think it’s a safe bet that someone, probably someone who voted for Sarah Palin, would call that crazy Democrat a socialist.

In the minds of most Americans, “socialism” is at worst a synonym for totalitarian Communism, and at best some dangerously European government-run threat to cherished freedoms. Such a perception exists hand in hand with majority support for national health insurance, well-funded public education and a public hand in guiding financial markets- a fact that today’s Republican Party leaders are painfully aware of. It’s that visceral reaction to the word itself that has made it the go-to talking point for tearing down even modestly progressive policies over the past century. When you can’t beat it on its face, just call it names.

And so, conservatives use the word to tar almost any policy they don’t like- whether or not it has anything to do with anything any real-life socialist would advocate. Lately, the gigantic bailout packages being pushed by the Obama Administration are the main targets. Nevermind that spending a lot of money isn’t in itself socialist policy: if it were, Ronald Reagan would be the movement’s poster boy. To the extent that there is any consensus about what socialism actually is, it boils down to democratic control of the economic power-levers. Dumping a gazillion dollars into private firms with scant oversight (let alone public control) may be smart or stupid, but it sure as hell isn’t socialism.

Conservative ire is a little closer to the mark when it comes to Obama’s proposed budget. Thankfully, the Administration’s spending priorities are certainly more social than those of the Bush/Hastert era. Still, spending more money on education, infrastructure and social programs doesn’t make a body socialist. Calling it so reveals a lot about just how far to the right the Republican Party actually is.

In response to these old canards, the Obama administration has stuck to its own proven formula of painting the opposition as hopelessly ideological and their own policy priorities as eminently pragmatic. However, in more progressive precincts, it’s not uncommon to hear almost private mumblings of “if only…” To this point, Robert Scheer has written a wonderful piece about the missed opportunities of the Administration’s expensive but not expansive recovery agenda (be sure to read the comments). The Nation recently featured a surprisingly disappointing “debate” between progressives over the relevance of socialism in today’s political reality.

Perhaps the most illuminating debate, however, is the one brewing between the Obama Administration and European leaders- in which Obama’s calls for massive, internationally-coordinated stimulus spending is meeting a cold reaction from Continental governments, most of them led by parties of the Right and Center Right. While some American conservatives point and say “aha!, the President is even more socialist than those froo-froo eurosocialists”, the facts point to something significantly different at the root of the disagreement. According to many European leaders, the strong social safety nets and regulatory regimes prevalent in Europe make gigantic spending packages less urgent. In most industrialized countries, spikes in unemployment aren’t the catastrophes they are in the United States, where private health care, chaotic housing markets and a dogged refusal to consistently support domestic industry conspire to create the cycle of misery the Obama Administration is working hard to stave off. To oversimplify: they don’t need emergency “socialism” in Europe because they already have something closer to the real thing. I don’t remember my 8th grade English lessons well enough to say that that is an “irony”, but there is definitely something poetic going on.

These differences get at the real tragedy behind our current political predicament. If it weren’t so easy to derail progressive policy by painting it red, we might have more institutions that would make the present crisis easier to manage. Why do they have these mechanisms in other countries? Not because Europeans are any smarter, more sophisticated or just plain cooler than Americans- it’s because political parties and social movements influenced by socialism have been a powerful part of the democratic order everywhere but here. I don’t know that the “s” word will ever be a normalized part of the political debate in the United States, or that it is worth expending much energy on rehabilitating it, but I do know that we are poorer because of its vilification.

Truth be told, there actually are socialists in the United States, and some of them are Democrats or support Democratic candidates. Among progressive intellectuals, there isn’t the same reflexive fear of the vocabulary of socialism as there is in the realm of electoral politics, which is a mixed blessing. More generally, there are scores of constituencies (and at least one whole State) which have chosen to elect representatives who either embrace or are nonplussed about the socialist label. Republicans worked hard to redbait Ron Dellums, but Berkeley and Oakland sent him back to Washington year after year.

Here’s the dirty secret, conservatives: it’s true that the left of the Democratic Party would be right at home in mainstream parties labeled “Socialist” or “Labor” in other countries. So what? These aren’t wacky fringe parties: they win elections and achieve important victories for environmental, social and economic sanity. They include such subversive enemies of freedom as Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. Incidentally, any honest mapping the politics of the Republican right, which includes open calls for religious-based government, justifications for torture, appeals to racism, and a crude Social Darwinism onto politics abroad would produce interesting results as well. Take a conservative Republican and throw them into Italian politics, and it would be hard to avoid the F word. No, not that one.

The gut-punch impact of the socialist label provides delicious possibilities for sound-bite politics on the right. Any connections between “admitted” socialists and Democratic politicians are put to wide use. If you can dig deep enough and find a purported socialist supporting a Democrat, that’s proof positive that they are socialists, too. Thus, the fact that Barbara Ehrenreich supported Obama, however critically, means that Obama is, well, you get the point. On a tiny scale, I’ve seen this dynamic first hand (again, don’t miss the comments).

Like full-blown McCarthyism, the chilling effect of this tactic is part of a deliberate strategy to marginalize any policy positions that don’t conform to the anti-government orthodoxy of modern conservatism. Unfortunately, it means that for survival’s sake, there is an understandable tendency for Democrats to give the stiff arm to the left. What’s most perverting about this system is that as a matter of course, the same thing doesn’t happen to elements of the Republican Party which embrace views are no less radical. The end result is a massive skewing of political discourse to the right, even though on individual policies, there is deep support for many of the left’s ideas.

The chill runs deep. In fact, as I write this little essay on my little blog, I’m painfully aware of the fact that everything I say can and will be used against me in a context not of my choosing. So, why write it? Because I agree with Robert Scheer- it’s just stupid to ignore the good things that socialist movements have achieved throughout the world because Newt Gingrich or John Fleishman will call people names.

This would all be strictly late night beer or coffee sort of discussion if it weren’t for a coming political battle that will put this dynamic front and center: health care. Achieving the humiliatingly overdue goal of universal health care will test the mettle of the Obama administration. We are likely to produce a more expensive, less efficient, less universal system in part because our side will be afraid of the inevitable name-calling.

Michael Moore’s Sicko (which I liked a lot) did a reasonable job of dramatizing the mobilization of anti-socialist rhetoric in the scuttling of several waves of health care reform efforts. The footage of Ronald Reagan’s first foray into politics as a shill for the insurance lobby should be required viewing. Moore’s film raised the important points that passing national health care doesn’t lead a country to socialism, and, once established, national health systems or national insurance systems become quite popular and durable- kinda like Social Security, which was also denounced as a red Trojan Horse in it’s day. But Sicko held back on marking an equally important fact- in almost every case, national health care systems were adopted because of governance by (or pressure from) movements that were not afraid of the “s” word.

In other words, you don’t have to be a socialist to think that health care for all is a worthy social goal. But in the coming months, you might wish that someone would stand up and say “so what?” when good policy is called bad because it carries a whiff of socialism.

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  1. Interesting post. Again, as a person of historical bent, it strikes me as odd how recent this phenomena is.

    FDR was called a socialist, and didn’t particularly run from it. He made fun of it, throwing the label on himself and his advisors, calling them comrade, etc. All in that particular iconoclastic style that is the purview of those so rich and socially privileged that they can break all taboos, so sure of their position are they.

    Now, FDR wasn’t a socialist, he was a liberal, but it was a self-consciously and unashamedly ideological kind of liberalism. FDR would argue with socialists and conservatives vehemently, but the ideological awareness had important consequences. One was that one could be extremely open to political and policy ideas and language – liberals like FDR had no problem denouncing the very concepts of self-interest that capitalism is founded on, or championing production-for-use or economic planning or more social concepts of property, without thinking of themselves as socialist per se, as long as their thinking about these ideas was filtered through their ideology.

    It’s similar to how Progressives in the Progressive Era could talk about replacing capitalism with a soviet of engineers or nattionalizing all the trusts, could break bread and study and talk and write with socialists of many different stripes, all because they had this organic connection to their own ideology.

    People didn’t shrink particularly from the socialist label per se until after WWII, and I think the problem originated within liberalism. There’s a great book by David Ciepely called “Liberalism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism,” which I think gives an insight here. Ciepely argues that after WWII, American liberals’ terror at seeing the results of Nazism reacted by renouncing all ideology as inherently totalitarianizing. Keep in mind, this was the time when a lot of the classic “could it happen here” social psychology experiments were done, a time when liberals were obsessed with the idea that ideological systems were forms of brain-washing that would lead to fascism or Stalinism.

    As such, liberals tried to recast their ideology into pragmatism. In part, they relied upon the allure of science and postiivism – arguing that politics should be guided by technocratic social science, that liberalism represented the moderate middle, and so on. Liberals confined both the Left and the Right to varients of either totalitarianism or mental disorders – witness Hoftstader’s “Paranoid Style in American Politics” as a reaction to Goldwaerian conservatism, or the hysterical over-reaction of establishment liberals to the New Left.

  2. [...] The “S” Word and Strange American Career [...]

  3. All idealistic political bases have excellent foundations, reasons, and goals. It is unfortunate that all idealistic political bases eventually become corrupt. Whether it’s communism that centralizes itself and enables itself to become rich, or capitalism that enables corporations to lead sheeple, take their money anyways, and call it something else. Its all the same thing.

    For those who succumb to the anti-socialism parade, remember… your Police, Firefighters, Air Traffic Control, Schools, and yes Libraries are all socialist funded organizations… you rely on those, yet side with lobbyists for the pay bonuses in excess of $11,000,000.00 for CEO’s of healthcare corporations. Sad.

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” – Thomas Jefferson

  4. [...] The “S” Word And Its Strange American Career « The Realignment Project [...]

  5. [...] for sanity, but rather for socialism, but not socialism for the rich and the corporate endowments. The Realignment Project considers the prevailing state of affairs in “the land of the brave and home of the [...]

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