The “S” Word And Its Strange American Career
“Christ, do I hate socialism and socialists. Scum like Daraka – esp. his spiritual brethren running the Legislature – are why I left CA in the first place.”- Joseph Turner, comment on Flashreport.com
Socialism. Is there a more dreaded word in American politics? Judging from the talking points of Republicans and their cheerleaders, there just couldn’t be. Granted, the histrionics over at Fox News does remind one of a hundred Chicken Littles with a hundred little doomsday messages. When everything is a sign of the sky falling, it’s hard to be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, the argument that the Obama Administration is leading the country on a long march to socialism is pretty unavoidable nowadays.
As is generally the case in the facile world of American political discourse, one can find a lot of irony in conservatives’ over-use of the “socialism” charge. Last Fall, it was easy to hear Sarah Palin boast that in her bucolic State, natural resources are owned by the “people of Alaska”, and so it’s only natural that every Citizen receives an annual check paid from oil receipts. She would then go on to snidely readbait the bejeezus out of Obama’s health care, taxation and public investment plans. I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if some crazy Democrat ran for Governor of California calling for the people to take ownership over our considerable natural resources. I think it’s a safe bet that someone, probably someone who voted for Sarah Palin, would call that crazy Democrat a socialist.
In the minds of most Americans, “socialism” is at worst a synonym for totalitarian Communism, and at best some dangerously European government-run threat to cherished freedoms. Such a perception exists hand in hand with majority support for national health insurance, well-funded public education and a public hand in guiding financial markets- a fact that today’s Republican Party leaders are painfully aware of. It’s that visceral reaction to the word itself that has made it the go-to talking point for tearing down even modestly progressive policies over the past century. When you can’t beat it on its face, just call it names.
And so, conservatives use the word to tar almost any policy they don’t like- whether or not it has anything to do with anything any real-life socialist would advocate. Lately, the gigantic bailout packages being pushed by the Obama Administration are the main targets. Nevermind that spending a lot of money isn’t in itself socialist policy: if it were, Ronald Reagan would be the movement’s poster boy. To the extent that there is any consensus about what socialism actually is, it boils down to democratic control of the economic power-levers. Dumping a gazillion dollars into private firms with scant oversight (let alone public control) may be smart or stupid, but it sure as hell isn’t socialism.