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It’s the word more than the program

  • Published at 08:40 pm March 13th, 2020
Senator Bernie Sanders

‘Socialism’ carries unalloyed stigma in the US

Words matter … and in the scheme of human history, sometimes more so than what those words may or may not mean. 

In a nutshell, that truism is perhaps the biggest hurdle Senator Bernie Sanders faces in seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party -- a party he does not technically belong to -- for the presidency of the United States.

More precisely, one word: Socialism.

Almost uniquely in the Western democracies, the US remains a society where the word “socialism” carries an unalloyed negative stigma. 

While it is quite normal to find Young Socialists as the youth wing of the British Labour Party, or to find prominent politicians wearing the label proudly in France or Sweden, in modern America such is quite unthinkable on a national scale. 

For good or bad, Americans have an almost visceral reaction to the terms “socialist” and “socialism,” regardless of their partisan identity as Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, or independents. 

Much of such antipathy is grounded in the decades of the Cold War where the main adversary -- the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) -- was synonymous with socialism. 

In a nod to this phenomena, even Bernie Sanders started applying the qualifier “democratic” to the plain “socialist” label that the Vermont politician has proudly claimed for a generation or more.

That adverbial qualification may not be enough to mollify many voters even in the centre-left Democratic Party. Deep-seated instincts honed over generations do not dilute away because a public relations expert has come up with a cute adjective or adverb. 

The oft repeated mantra that many socialist policies have already been adopted in the US is a little more useful for the Sanders campaign. 

Contrary to conventional understanding, socialistic economic policies have a long history in the US. Substantial social safety programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare payments are well known and often come in for regular bashing by supposed conservatives.

Equally robust -- and often deliberately ignored by the political right -- are humongous agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare, no-bid contracting, and preferential tax treatment of corporations. 

Even the most narrow definition of socialism as being about public control of means of production and distribution finds more than a few example in the US, ranging from the massive federal TVA electricity utility that supplies power to large parts of Appalachia, to smaller state-owned financial and agriculture enterprises, to even smaller garbage disposal businesses at the city and county level.

And therein lies the opportunity that Senator Sanders and his most enthusiastic supporters have not quite been able to navigate either out of hubris or plain naivete. 

They often mention -- rightly so -- that President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) was often tarnished with the “socialist” label as he spearheaded the building of the social safety net in the aftermath of the Great Depression, a social safety net that most Americans across the political spectrum take for granted. 

The difference is that FDR and his team were smart enough to studiously avoid using the terminology of socialism even as they built up a massive public sector. Intellectually dishonest this may have been, but politics is hardly the province of holiness and successful politicians are more likely to be closer to Machiavelli than to Mother Theresa in their ethical purity. 

For the most part, FDR was a very successful politician, getting elected four consecutive terms and implementing most of his domestic agenda into policy that is today deeply embedded into America’s economic and social framework.  

The smart minds around President Roosevelt realized that packaging a basket of public goods in the wrapping paper of something other than socialism got a far better mileage in terms of policy victories than stylistically pure and ideologically pristine rhetoric. 

For the “Bernie Brothers” -- as the raucous supporters of Senator Sanders are sometimes referred to -- such a dilution of ideological probity sounds cynical and perhaps a betrayal of the ideals of their proffered political revolution. 

Hence, the vehemence of their attacks at the centre-left Joe Biden are equal to, if not more than, the level of angst they channel towards Donald Trump and the populist-right Republicans. 

Such behaviour is pregnant with another layer of irony: The conspiracy theories emanating from the hardcore supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump about the “establishment” and “corporate media” and “the elite” are stunningly similar, if not identical. 

President Trump is smart in that he claims, without batting an eyelid at the inherent inconsistency of the assertion, that his nefarious enemies in the media and corporations want to bring America closer to socialism; Mr Sanders’ youthful supporters hold these same conspiratorial entities as being roadblocks to socialism. 

Given the broader public’s primal reaction to the word, Donald Trump is more successful in peddling his “revolution” than Bernie Sanders has been. I suspect that that relative dynamic is unlikely to change this year. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]