Socialism: A Story of American Misunderstanding

Currently, the United States is rampant with civil conflict, cultural warfare, and social resentment. From social justice protests within major cities across the U.S. to the temporary U.S. Capitol Building insurrection by supporters of the outgoing president, Americans are visibly dissatisfied with current social and political institutions. Strife over political and social issues dominate dinner tables and hinder the ability of many to explore multicultural relationships. Americans have assumed a hostile political consciousness that dictates their understanding of one another and corrupts their social environments. We have inadvertently created a culture that systematically erodes the accountability and power of ideas, especially those that contest personal sociopolitical perspectives. Americans, once proud to celebrate and institute diversity and freedom, have increasingly isolated themselves within social bubbles of ideological validation, and this isolation comes from both sides of the political aisle. But why is this? How can Americans claim to be the “Greatest Country in the World” and simultaneously exploit one another’s differences to the brink of societal dysfunction?

The weaponization of terminology stands to blame for creating this American cultural division. Socialism, for instance, has become a highly weaponized term with deliberate social and political implications. During the 2020 Presidential Debates, President Trump continuously referenced the “socialist” intentions and plans of the Democratic Party and then-candidate Joe Biden. “Your party wants to go to socialist medicine and socialist healthcare.” President Trump made these assertions as an attempt to discredit Vice President Biden and warn Americans about the potential takeover of healthcare by the government. Conservative Americans and Republican political officials have effectively sloganeered socialism to represent liberal extremism and the perceived dictatorial, Communistic control of American society by government.

Even Democratic party members themselves have linked socialism to inappropriate policy extremism. West Virginia Representative Joe Manchin (D) tweeted, “Defund the police? Defund, my butt. I’m a proud West Virginia Democrat. We are the party of working men and women. We want to protect Americans’ jobs & healthcare. We do not have some crazy socialist agenda, and we do not believe in defunding the police.” Here, Rep. Manchin creates a stark distinction between himself, the “West Virginia Democrat,” and the “crazy socialist agenda” by denoting socialism as an unnecessary and ridiculous extreme.

Traditionally, Democratic political officials have associated socialism with desires for economic, legislative, and social equalities like a $15 minimum wage and expanded healthcare coverage. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the premier self-identified “socialists” in Congress, confronted the intentions of socialist policies and recognized the alternatively negative coverage in a speech at George Washington University. As Sen. Sanders put it:

“Now, we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights – the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment…. That is what I mean by democratic socialism…. [And] I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur.”

In this speech, Sanders lays out the fundamentals of socialist policies: economic accountability, economic equality, and economic equity.

Seemingly a dominant political term today, this isn’t the first time that socialism has been wielded as a weapon against the public and other political officials. Socialism has a deeper historical connection to American politics and society throughout the late 1910s and late 1940s-50s. With the Bolshevik Revolution and rise of Marxist (Communist) totalitarianism in Russia, the United States became wary of non-contemporary political ideologies. Later, the Red Scares and Cold War tensions exacerbated the threat of Communist influence and socialist policies in American politics. These events and other international developments stoked political polarization, created ideological paranoia, and instigated international security crises. As a result, socialism in America gained notoriety for encouraging dictatorial political structures and democratic instability. Perhaps current understandings of socialism are dictated by its original encasement in fear and hysteria. In 1952, President Harry Truman addressed the competing perspectives of socialism, claiming that socialism was negatively associated with initiatives involving “public power,” “social security,” “farm price supports,” “bank deposit insurance,” “labor organizations,” and “almost anything that helps all the people.” President Truman’s address reveals the intentions of opposition forces to undermine public programs embracing collective agreements within society.

How does socialism’s historical context and present interpretations impact Americans? According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 23% of Americans associate socialism with principles of equality, while 17% believe the term corresponds to government ownership and control. It seems the American public remains divided and continues to misunderstand socialism. So, how do Americans reconcile these contradictory understandings? And what does socialism really mean? Political theorists Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill have defined socialism as “requir[ing] that the bulk of the means of production workers use to yield goods and services be under the effective control of workers themselves, rather than in the hands of the members of a different, capitalist class under whose direction they must toil.” Gilabert and O’Neill’s definition reinforces American socialism’s prioritization of economic organization and structural equality. Similarly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) define themselves as “[believing] that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.” American democratic socialists reject the notion of “an all-powerful government bureaucracy” and oppose societal control by “corporate bureaucracies.” Instead, democratic socialists “believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.” 

Therefore, Americans should come to understand socialism as a representation of a cultural mindset that recognizes principles of empowerment through grassroots organization, community action, and individual engagement in government decisions. American socialism does not advocate complete government control. Instead, it’s a societal phenomenon instituted by dissatisfied populations that demand systematic, political, and/or social change. American socialism promotes cooperation and facilitates diverse interaction between the American people and their political institutions.

Socialism, in our current volatile social climate, functions as a powerfully divisive verbal tool and political weapon. It stands as the model political casualty of the cut-throat U.S. party system and historical Communist paranoia. In some ideological regions, socialism wields a significant negative connotation and references un-American principles; in others, socialism resonates attitudes of equality, fairness, and progress. Overall, American socialism carries political and social baggage but, most importantly, encourages reflection on traditions and the management of political institutions. In this sense, socialism is unafraid to shake the status quo and question traditional societal functions in an attempt to introduce economically equitable programs. To put it simply, socialism empowers the voice of the individual and demands that government and corporate entities hold themselves accountable to those voices.

By: Dilliard Collier

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