When I hear Republicans sound the alarm that electing Democrats will lead to socialism, I’m reminded of what President Harry S Truman once said: “Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people…Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance people have made [since FDR’s New Deal]. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports.”
While it’s clear that most Americans do not know what socialism is, it is also clear that Americans could make sound economic judgments about our economy if Republicans did not use “socialism” as a scare word. They say Socialists want to take away our property and are against democracy. But Socialists have no interest in taking away anyone’s property, car, or personal items. Rather, they seek economic justice.
Karl Marx often used the terms “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably. Socialism is neither communism nor Marxism. Marxism would replace the corporate ownership of business and hand the companies to the workers to manage and control. Most people think communism is the political structure of the former USSR and China, but even these regimes do not represent Marxism.
Furthermore, socialism is not a replacement for capitalism. Democratic socialism would instead place more obligations on corporations and owners, such as how much more money CEOs can make compared to their employees, granting employees more rights, and requiring that all workers receive a living wage.
What are some of the goals of democratic socialism? First and foremost is the creation and maintenance of an effective social safety net. Throughout American history, Democratic Socialists have joined with progressives to fight for every advance in American society, almost always against bitter, even hysterical, conservative resistance: child labor laws, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the graduated income tax, direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, pure food and drug laws, the Securities and Exchange Commission, insured savings at banks, rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, labor’s right to organize, bargain, and strike, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Teach for America, the AmeriCorps, food stamps, federal aid to education, legal services for the poor, and clean air and water laws – the list goes on and on.
Conservatives delight in proclaiming the wonders of the free market. What “free market” do they have in mind? Name an important industry in the United States that isn’t dominated by a small number of companies. Take a look at the tax code and see all the tax breaks the companies – and their shareholders – have been granted. Then take a look at how much these industries and companies spend on lobbying and political campaigns in order to preserve their advantages. Could there be a connection?
But when it comes to issues such as the right of workers to unionize, mandating a living wage, providing health care and affordable education for all, reining in the giant financial institutions, or mitigating climate change, conservatives would have us believe that we’re on the brink of a disaster: socialism.
So why don’t Americans – especially those with low incomes – demand a more equitable distribution of the wealth? First, they don’t realize how unfair the current economic distribution is. Second, they have unrealistic beliefs about the opportunity for economic mobility in the United States. Third, while liberals and conservatives agree about the extent of income inequality, bombastic rhetoric from both sides drowns out liberals who offer solutions and conservatives who call them Socialists.
When you consider the countries that have robust social programs, you’ll find that they have overtaken the United States in individual wealth. According to international investment bank Credit Suisse’s annual Global Wealth Databook, the United States ranks 21st in median wealth per adult at $61,667. The median wealth per adult in the twenty countries ranked above the U.S. range from South Korea, $65,363, to Iceland, $203,847. These wealthier countries have developed economies that have taken on many elements of socialism, but they are not purely socialistic. They have entrepreneurs, they have economic competition, but their income disparities are not as great as in the United States and they have much wider safety nets for all.
Republicans and conservative media are going to call whatever Democrats propose “socialism,” and they are going to fight these proposals tooth and nail for as long as they can. It’s always been that way. In 1964, George H. W. Bush called Medicare socialized medicine, and Senator Barry Goldwater said it was like giving away free beer and vacations to pensioners. A generation before, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the New Deal and Social Security, Congressional Republicans railed about socialism.
Democrats might as well stand up for, and not shy away from, policies that embrace their values. Let the voters decide whose path forward is best for our country.