When Donald Trump barks about “socialism,” he is probably thinking (and hopes that you’re thinking) of the dark, dank, and dull version that oppressed the people of the old Soviet bloc. Republican media feeds, including his, currently feature “socialist” as the preferred insult, warning that Democrats aim to transform the United States into decaying, authoritarian Venezuela.
While such dystopian visions make for scary propaganda, does anyone really believe that the Democratic Party aims to deprive us all of food and medical care? The only politicians actually trying to take those goods away from some Americans are the Trump Republicans, with their incessant campaign to slash food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.
But there are a few elected officials who describe themselves as “democratic socialists,” notably the very famous Bernie Sanders and the newly famous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Moreover, as mainstream media coverage emphasizes daily, at least some leading Democrats have “moved left,” possibly under the influence of those socialistic politicians. Unfortunately most of those same media outlets devote little effort to dispelling the confusion inevitably created by terms that were defined for so many Americans during the Cold War against communism.
Let’s remember that during the Cold War, America’s most reliable allies included nations that were dominated by socialist parties and implemented socialist domestic policies, including variations of the health care system that we now call “Medicare for All.”
If universal medical coverage is how Republicans define “socialism,”after all, then our closest friends — including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and all of the Nordic countries — were and are socialist. Except of course that all of those countries also have thriving private sector economies, from the pub on the corner to major multinational firms.
So perhaps socialist isn’t the most useful term, even though major political parties in those friendly countries use it to describe their outlook. Those parties also cherish democratic norms, share power with non-socialist and conservative parties, and reject the idea that the state should own or control all aspects of economic life. Perhaps that’s why many use the term “social democratic” — or democratic socialist.
So what does that mean? Social democrats use government to oversee the economy so that corporations and the wealthy are prevented from dominating and exploiting society. Social democrats demand that those who benefit most from society give back the most by means of a progressive tax system. Social democrats see health care and education as public goods that should be provided to everyone, because that benefits society as well as individuals. And social democrats view the natural environment, including breathable air and potable water, as a universal birthright for government to safeguard. Such positions tend to poll very favorably, even in capitalist America.
Indeed, there are many leading Democrats like Elizabeth Warren who forthrightly describe themselves as “capitalist,” yet advocate programs that might well be called social democratic or even socialist. These scrambled definitions become even more confusing when Republican political positions are scrutinized honestly. After all, Trump himself claimed to support Medicare, which will suddenly turn into socialism as soon as it becomes available to anyone under 65 years old. Trump has doled out billions in subsidies to farmers, just like those “socialist” countries do. And his daughter claims to support paid family leave, a benefit available to the citizens of most of those countries for many years already.
Maybe we should set aside the contradictory and confusing debate over socialism, and instead discuss how to best improve the prospects of Americans in a time of economic uncertainty and global change. That would require Republicans to abandon their timeworn scare tactics and explain how they would advance the pursuit of happiness and the common good. They might even have to come up with a new idea.
IMAGE: Photo of Democratic Socialists of America marchers by David Shankbone via Flickr