The meanings of words matters
What does the average Republican mean when they accuse Democrats of “socialism”? Is there any common understanding among those who hear the term? I suspect that for many older Americans “socialism” conjures up dire memories of the Cold War, the “communist threat,” and George Orwell’s 1984. Those images offer only a slim connection to the dictionary definition of socialism:
a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
In the United States we are, by almost any measure, a far cry from “the means of production, distribution, and exchange” being owned by the community. Professor Heather Cox Richardson, in a post I urge you to read in full, puts Republican shrieking against “socialism” into perspective:
If this measure [the “second” infrastructure bill, the $3.5 trillion bill] passes, it will expand the ways in which the government addresses the needs of ordinary Americans. It updates the measures put in place during the New Deal of the 1930s, when Democrats under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shored up nuclear families—usually white nuclear families—by providing unemployment insurance, disability coverage, aid to children, and old age insurance.
After World War II, people of both parties accepted this new system, believing that it was the job of a modern government to level the economic playing field between ordinary men and those at the top of the economic ladder. Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon expanded government action into civil rights and protection of the environment; Democrats Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter expanded education initiatives, health care, anti-poverty programs, civil rights, and workers’ rights.
But opponents insisted that such government action was “socialism.” In America, this word comes not from international socialism, in which the government owns the means of production, but rather from the earlier history of Reconstruction, when white opponents of Black voting insisted that the money to pay for programs like schools, which helped ordinary and poorer people, must [by necessity] come from those with wealth, and thus redistribute[d] wealth. They demanded an end to the taxes that supported public programs.
The Republican Party has been captured, at least since Reagan’s election in 1980, by those wishing to dismantle social programs dating back as far as the establishment of a public education system.
My laptop’s dictionary points out that people mean different things by “socialism”:
The term “socialism” has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state communism, and social democracy; however, it necessarily implies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market. The socialist parties that have arisen in most European countries from the late 19th century have generally tended toward social democracy.
The next time you hear “socialism” used as an accusation ask the speaker how they define “socialism”. Don’t prompt them. Be patient. Don’t accuse--or propose. The response might be interesting. Are they really just spouting Republican orthodoxy about “the untrammeled workings of the economic market” that they imagine might be had with no taxes, no governmental programs, and no regulation whatsoever--or are they still worried about the “communist threat” that informed their youth?
Socialism is a word that lights up different images in different minds. Get a handle on what the word means to you and enquire what it means to people who hurl the word as an accusation.
Keep to the high ground,