Did Conservatives Make Socialism Respectable in the U.S.

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a cafe in Paris when I happened to strike up a conversation with an Australian woman sitting next to me. At some point, she brought up Sarah Palin and went on for quite a bit about how ridiculous she was, a position with which I agreed. After continuing a little bit longer, she finally said, “What ever happened to her?” I said, “She wasn’t elected. She had no real support, so she disappeared.”

This time around, the media is having fun with reality tv star Donald Trump. As far as I can tell, Donald Trump is supported by Republicans who are angry with the status quo of the party and want to send a message. I have no reason to believe that he has even a small chance of winning the general election. However, he satisfies the need everyone has to gloat and go on about how stupid the unwashed masses are, the unwashed masses being, as best as I’ve been able to discern, everyone but the speaker. It’s a ritualized routine everyone is comfortable with.

Another routine which people left of center have enjoyed throughout my entire life is the one where they say how stupid Americans are for being afraid of socialism. We, so the Kabuki theatre of the left goes, barely understand what the word means and we are automatically scared to death when we hear it. This is then followed by a self-congratulatory pose for being so much more well-informed than the strawman.

These routines are so well ingrained in our political discourse, if discourse is the right word, sometimes we continue to say them long after there is much substance behind them. Will the conventional wisdom that U.S. citizens automatically run when they hear the word “socialism” change now that Bernie Sanders is drawing huge crowds, 28,000 people in Portland, Oregon, and 27,500 in Los Angeles?

The idea that citizens in the U.S. tend to be jumpy about the word socialism is not simply a myth. While we may support specific social programs, we tend to back away from a full-blown Socialist ideology. According to Wikipedia:

Initially, “socialism” referred to general concern for the social problems of capitalism regardless of the solutions to those problems. However, by the late 19th century, after waves of revolutionary movements, “socialism” had come to signify opposition to capitalism and advocacy for a post-capitalist system based on some form of social ownership.

In the United States, you can often find support for the former and very little support for the latter. Conservatives have made much use of the blurred definition by referring to specific social programs they oppose as “socialism.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Jason L. Riley points out that “no one is saying Bernie Sanders can’t win because America isn’t ready to elect an avowed socialist as president, which might have been the case not too long ago.”

This is a dramatic change in attitudes. I can’t help speculating that this change has been brought about by the rhetoric of the far right. For six and a half years now, the right has screamed relentlessly that President Obama is a Socialist. This generally has left people to the left of center laughing and shaking their heads. Compared even to me, a moderate liberal, Obama might as well be a moderate conservative. The far right has screamed “The President is a Socialist,” and the general population must have noticed that the sky has not fallen. Ironically, by calling every move to address any social problem “socialism”, without any nuance or explanation, the right may have taken the sting out of the word. Also, they may have confused the distinction.

Riley continues:

If the Democratic Party once felt the need to distinguish itself from socialism, that no longer seems to be the case. When Mr. Sanders entered Congress in 1991, “Democrats initially balked at accepting a Socialist in their caucus,” according to the “Almanac of American Politics.”

He goes on to say, “in this age of Obama, the senator is just another liberal with a statist agenda.” This is routine rhetoric that we’ve come to expect over the past few years. Sanders calls himself a socialist, Sanders often votes with the Democrats, Obama is a Democrat, therefore Obama is a Socialist. Riley may mean this to reflect badly on Obama, but the ultimate effect is to make Socialism less scary and normalize it for the U.S. public.

As an intellectual, I’m not really thrilled with this confusion. I believe that ideas matter, although it may not always be evident in the heat of a political fight when people will say anything to win. Blurring the lines between Liberalism and Socialism, between Leftist Radicalism and Liberalism, makes it difficult to discuss what we believe. Still, I’m not afraid of Socialists and if the slogans of the right have made a self-described socialist electable, I must say I find that very funny.

Oh – the only poll I could find that pitted Sanders against Trump has Sanders winning.

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2 comments
  1. You use that ‘S’ word so cavalierly; it jarred my very being each time I saw it, nearly sending me into paroxysms. You even used the ‘L’ word, and it bothers me even when I hear Rush Limbaugh say it. (You know Obama is one of those, don’t you? At least according to Rush.)

    It’s interesting that you should have brought up the subject of the history of socialism (oops, I just used that word didn’t I?), since I’ve been reading about the wobblies and in particular, how they organized using songs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ciHHJeCgWk if you’ve some time to blow). One of my favorite singers was Haywire Mac (Cigareets and Whuskey and Wild Wild Women, a one-sided recording from 1908), who debuted the Joe Hill song The Preacher and the Slave. I learned about the wobblies in a Florida history class and later met two of the old-timers when I moved to Oklahoma. I was surprised to find out they’re making a major comeback.

    Please take care not to bruise my sensitive psyche again.

    • fojap said:

      Obama’s a lesbian? Does Michelle know?

      As it happens, my grandfather was a Wobbly. Since the IWW eventually disappeared, he just became a pro-union person. My sister calls herself a socialist, at least when she takes the time to think about it. She’s not overly political. Most of the people I knew in school were socialists, and those who weren’t were anarchists or Marxists. My move towards liberalism as a major move to the right. 🙂

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