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Socialism: the dirty word of American politics

ByKate Huangpu

Apr 30, 2019

Socialism. The label has been thrown around by conservatives and liberals alike to shame and ostracise those who propose plans such as universal healthcare coverage, social security or trade union.

President Trump often used it as a rallying cry during his campaign. Just this past State of the Union, he preached, “here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country…. tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

It might be a little too late.

Many modern American politicians have failed to define socialism. While some emphasise the distinction between democratic socialism and socialism itself, others like to blur the line between socialism and communism.

What policies are socialist? Universal healthcare? A public school system? Conservative political pundits often ridicule politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for proposing income taxes, or breaking up giant tech corporations, claiming that their policies are akin to the socialism seen in the early 19th century. These same politicians vehemently deny any accusations of socialism.

Warren identifies as a capitalist. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders insist on the term democratic-socialist.

However, many of the policies espoused by these so-called “socialist” politicians seem to be far less radical in other states around the world. Not only that, they have been adopted by the Democratic Party as the status quo for their 2020 political platform.

Obama’s proposal for an expanded healthcare system was considered groundbreaking at the time of its announcement. It clawed and scratched its way through Congress, taking years to become law. Even after the bill passed, the constitutionality of the law itself had to be debated in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the UK has had a universal healthcare system, the NHS, since 1948. In fact, most countries in the Global North have some form of universal healthcare. In the US, however, the debate as to whether or not its citizens deserve access to medical treatment seems to be a philosophical one. Why then, is the United States so far behind from its peers in this regard?

The answer may be in its history. As many western countries have, the US has had a long and laborious relationship with socialist and communist movements.

Starting in the early 1900s, socialist and communist organisations were regularly under fire for threatening the stability of the United States.

Such organisations were often linked with labour movements and anarchist organisations as well. Anti-war socialist groups were accused by the government of assisting the Central Powers during World War I, resulting in a publicised condemnation.

These anti-socialist sentiments fueled a positive feedback cycle which resulted in widespread ostracisation.  Thus the socialist identity became ostracised the world over.

Yet the US was not the only country that experienced a ‘red scare.’ Similar events were taking place across Europe. Where the US diverged was in the Cold War. As one of the two superpowers leading the charge to define the new world order, the US had inflammatory anti-communist rhetoric. In order to get Congress to allocate funds to rebuilding Europe post-WWII, President Truman stoked the public’s fear of communism.

The Truman Doctrine, to provide unending assistance to nations under threat from communist forces, was the first in a series of US foreign policy decisions that centred around containing, and even counteracting communism.

From the Bay of Pigs to the Berlin Wall, the US’s role in the Cold War informed foreign and domestic policy for nearly fifty years. Communism always seemed to be around the corner.

Witch-hunts were common, neighbours were spying on neighbours, and it seemed that the apocalypse was impending. This was the everyday life of people living in this era.  The lingering effects of this Cold War resulted in the anti-socialist sentiments we experience today.

However, in this post-Cold War world, are such views still valid? A retrospective view on the Cold War shows that it was more about duelling superpowers than duelling ideologies.

While fear of communism might have caused the US’s involvement in the Cold War, it was equally, if not more, fueled by the fear of Soviet supremacy.

The US would often support authoritarian pro-Western leaders over independent popular leaders in order to thwart Soviet expansionism, sacrificing their own values of freedom and self-determination.

As someone born well after the end of the Cold War, who has not lived through any sort of ‘red scare,’ I find it difficult to have the same anti-socialist bias that many politicians have.

Upon first contact of the concept, I thought that I was already living in some sort of socialist government.  Didn’t we have to pay taxes? Didn’t those taxes go towards things like social security and Medicare and Medicaid? I didn’t see anything wrong with that.

Though the US is an undoubtedly capitalist society, it might do well to admit to itself that it does sometimes pursue socialist policies, and that there is no problem with that.


Image: Ian Shane via Flickr

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