The 'S' word

burke and paine

The United States is one of the few industrialized nations to view the term “socialist” as taboo. No other word is as contaminating for an opposition candidate, and that's why so many campaigns and political pundits are quick to use it as a weapon. Whether it be Bill O’Reilly referring to the president’s policies as part of a “socialist vision for America,” Ben Carson attacking the progressive income tax code by labeling it as socialism or Ted Cruz arguing that “Obama is a disaster because he’s an unmitigated socialist,” all of these jabs use the taboo of the “S” word in order to tear down the opponent. Even Democrats—who would be more likely to embrace the ideology—avoid the label at all costs, because they don’t want to seem anti-American or anti-capitalist. This trend among progressives is so apparent that even the comedian Bill Maher took notice on the issue: “If a Democrat even thinks you’re calling him liberal, he grabs an orange vest and a rifle and heads into the woods to kill something.”

It seems that Republicans spend their entire careers trying to label the enemies as socialists, and Democrats spend their entire political careers trying to avoid any association with being one. This country seems convinced that we’re a cataclysmic battle between the forces of evil big government and the forces of freedom and the free market.

What our politicians fail to see is this: the United States is no longer deciding if we should have socialistic principles in our society or not. That was decided a long time ago, when we created the largest bureaucracy in the world, implemented Medicaid and Medicare, began regulating industry to a significant extent and established a financial safety net for poor citizens. We’re not in a battle between socialism and capitalism; we’re in a battle over what degree of socialism we should have in our society today.

Aside from a few more radical candidates, many of the Republicans running for the presidency hold positions on issues that blatantly bolster the view that a little bit of socialism in government isn’t a bad thing. Though many have proposed reforms or resizing of large government programs, there is no doubting that the overwhelming majority of candidates have supported socialistic policies. Jeb Bush’s position on regulatory reform, for example, calls to institute a “one in, one out” system and the repealing of several environmental laws, which would reduce the cost of regulation in general. However, his campaign hasn’t called to abolish many of the agencies that are supposedly out of control, which would sound like the anti-socialist thing to do. Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Lindsey Graham have all defended the existence of Medicare and Medicaid, advocating to increase the efficiency of the programs, rather than to destroy them. And though Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee have criticized the welfare system in this country, they have both supported efforts to reform and fix these programs. Their policy proposals are not an attempt to eliminate government intervention in society; they are an attempt to tweak the level of government intervention that we already have and make it more effective.

These politicians seem to live in a fantasy world, a world in which the ideas proposed by Democrats are a new introduction of socialism into our society. What the Republicans fail to see is that socialism has fundamentally been a part of our government since the 1960s, and both parties are just negotiating if they should expand or reduce the current level.

The problem with using the “S” word in political discourse is that it immediately turns one side of the aisle into the “anti-American” group. In the United States, socialism is associated with the horrors of totalitarian regimes in decades past, so anybody branded as a socialist is associated with things our country traditionally hates. Anybody can call a liberal that word, and that person’s political leanings are immediately within the same category of Stalin, Mao and other dictators' policies. Somehow, advocating for a larger federal government, higher taxes or more social programs can be immediately branded as something antithetical to American values. This reduces the overall quality of the public conversation, firstly because it mischaracterizes what our government is, and secondly because it transforms debate into a competition of who can say the harshest words.

The United States has had socialistic principles embedded in both its liberal and conservative policies for a long time, and this trend will likely continue in the future. It's about time we admitted it to ourselves.

DPU’s Burke & Paine is a biweekly column that runs on alternate Wednesdays. Each column will feature a different writer and will cover a different topic related to political engagement. Trinity sophomore Nic Justice wrote this week’s column.


Share and discuss “The 'S' word” on social media.