‘Socialism’ a tired old insult

Some political ploys never die. They are reborn perpetually, like zombies, throughout the last 150 years or so of American history in the hope of swaying voters’ opinions.

Among the hoariest of these is the warning against impending socialism.

There have been actual American socialists. The most famous is Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist candidate for president, who received more than 900,000 votes in 1912 (6 percent of the popular vote) and again in 1920. Other socialist true believers still exist today.

But Debsian socialism is not the real target for today’s political attacks. 

The target is the Democratic Party. 

The attackers are certain conservative Republicans, and the target audience is the unsuspecting sector of the electorate.

The “socialist” accusation has started to appear in GOP speeches and tweets from the White House and Congress, as well as conservative press and broadcast pundits. Boiled down to its basic element, the warning is that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for a socialist America.

The argument maintains its strength because of the wobbly nature of the term “socialist.” What the conservative accusers mean is not the classic definition of socialism.

Socialism, accurately defined, is the political and economic system involving public or government ownership of the means of production and distribution. In its most extreme form, private ownership doesn’t exist except for the most personal items, such as clothing. All factories, wholesale, retail, farming and natural resource production firms are government owned.

That’s not what the Democratic Party stands for, and it’s not what Democratic candidates advocate. 

There may be an outlier Democrat who believes in that philosophy, just as there may be an occasional Republican who wants to privatize all military and penal institutions.

What conservatives oppose, when they play the “socialism” card, is a more progressive tax structure, more government regulation of private businesses to protect the public and more legislation promoting the general welfare. In other words, the platform of most Democratic Party organizations and candidates.

Republicans have tried to paint the fear of “socialism” into politics for decades. 

They attacked the Social Security law, enacted in 1935, as socialism. The same for Medicare, enacted in 1965. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) of 2010 was tarred with the socialism brush.  

“Socialism” is the go-to cry against nearly any proposal designed to benefit large groups of Americans.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, states six reasons for the creation of that founding document: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Conservatives will emphasize the common defense, domestic tranquility, justice and liberty purposes. Rarely will they note the welfare goal. 

But the Founders saw promoting the general welfare as essential to good government, and they set about to do just that.

Promoting the general welfare doesn’t come cheap. That’s a problem for conservatives, just as the cost of providing for the common defense is a sticking point for progressives. 

Both are necessary “in order to form a more perfect union.” The trick is to find the proper balance among the six purposes in the Preamble. 

But as political rhetoric pointing toward the 2020 elections heats up, we would do well to see the warning against “socialism” for what it is: a deliberate scare tactic untethered from reality. 

It insults the intelligence of American voters.

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