Opinion: Why Americans should stop demonizing socialism

Brynne Paiva, Editor-in-Chief

Art by Amy Wang.

A couple of nights ago I heard Fox News anchor Sean Hannity call Joe Biden the worst insult he could think of. He said it with such malice, such fury: “Biden is a SOCIALIST.” Based on his tone of voice, you would think that he had just discovered that Biden is the Zodiac Killer. 

As the increasing polarization in our country has left many liberal politicians on the receiving end of this insult, whether from the media or their conservative counterparts, I started to wonder when being called socialist became so terrible. The word socialism certainly leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of most Americans, reminding us of the corrupt totalitarian governments that America has always sought to distinguish itself from. Yet the broad concept socialism doesn’t require the totalitarian rule that we often associate with it.

In its most common definition, socialism simply calls for “collective ownership of the means of production.” Means of production include any non-human resource used to produce something of economic value like real estate, farmland, natural resources, or infrastructure. American politicians who declare themselves socialist, like Bernie Sanders, also interpret “means of production” to include education and healthcare. This interpretation reflects the more specific definition of democratic socialism, defined by Mark A. Peterson, a professor of public policy, political science, and law at UCLA, as a call for “the democratically-elected to use the public sector to promote greater equality and opportunity.” This theory hopes to give people more equal economic footing through policies like cheaper healthcare, free public education, and universal childcare. 

For the large majority of Americans who don’t sit at the top of the capitalist economic ladder, this definition of socialism may seem pretty appealing as it’s focused on helping those outside the ultra-wealthy gain access to basic human liberties. However, many Americans still fear the very word because of the common mistake that socialism is synonymous with one of its more dangerous manifestations: communism. 

Communism is a form of socialism in which all property is publicly owned and people are paid, at least in theory, according to their abilities and needs. This theory has been manipulated throughout history to achieve the goals of totalitarian regimes ranging from Bolshevism in Russia to Maoism in China to the socialism of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Undoubtedly evil, these regimes reflect perversions of what one branch of socialism actually is—using the attractive concept of collective ownership and distribution to gain traction for right-wing, totalitarian, militant governments. Yet, in many American minds, these are still the most significant manifestations of socialism even though the concepts of communism and socialism are drastically different. 

But this isn’t the most predominant reasoning for the malice in Sean Hannity’s voice as he called Biden a socialist. American conservatives have championed a laissez-faire approach to governing for centuries, fearing the effects of big government regulation on the success of our economy. Socialism intrinsically favors “big government,” using the public sector to pass legislation that can help all citizens, contributing to its demonization by the right wing. Along these same lines, socialism is thought to be antithetical to capitalism, and since capitalism is so deeply ingrained in the American identity, to be socialist is to be unpatriotic. But socialism and capitalism are imperfect opposites, in fact, they often work in tandem, with corporations and capitalism continuing to thrive in countries which have effectively combined capitalist policies with socialist ones, the United States included. 

Canada’s publicly-funded healthcare system is an example of a socialistic policy in which any citizen can receive necessary healthcare without paying out-of-pocket. Many Scandinavian countries offer tuition-free public colleges covered by taxpayers, an aspect of democratic socialism. The public school system in the United States is an example of a socialist policy, where citizens pay higher taxes to ensure that their children can receive a K-12 education. Additionally, it’s been socialistic policies that have gotten America out of major economic crises—like our current one—with FDR’s New Deal being the prime example.

All of these countries are still capitalist, showing how the introduction of socialist policies doesn’t indicate a downfall of capitalism as certain American conservatives tend to believe. Capitalism, like socialism, becomes dangerous when is goes unchecked too, as we saw during the industrial revolution before laws restricting child labor, dangerously long work hours, and unsafe working conditions in factories. Socialism, like most political theories, is a tool for running a country rather than an end goal. Many facets of socialist philosophy, including equality and social justice, have been championed by American Democrats for decades, which is why it’s important to remember—and should go without saying—that politicians who push socialist policies are uninterested in turning America into Soviet Russia.

Yet, calling a politician socialist, invoking the fear of communism and totalitarianism that accompanies the word, is continuously used as a tool by the right-wing to discredit liberal politicians. Misrepresenting what socialism means, construing it as an insult, only demonizes politicians who are trying to reap the many benefits of socialism—more equitable healthcare systems, cheaper or free public colleges, and worker protection. It’s time Americans stop viewing the word “socialist” as a weapon, but rather understand the concept as a tool for equality.