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“Socialism” Has Lost All Meaning in American Politics

Bernie Sanders rehabilitated the word. Now Trump is using it as a slur—and the press is following his lead.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Monday, during a visit to New Hampshire, California Senator Kamala Harris was asked by a reporter if she considered herself a democratic socialist—just as Bernie Sanders, an independent who won the Granite State’s last Democratic primary, does. “The people of New Hampshire will tell me what’s required to compete in New Hampshire, but I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist,” Harris said. A day later, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt pressed Harris on whether Medicare for All, which she supports, was socialism. Once again, Harris rejected the term. “No, no,” she said. “It’s about providing health care to all people.”

Over the past three weeks—beginning with his State of the Union address—President Trump has attempted to turn the 2020 primary into a binary choice between his (corrupt) presidency and Venezuela-style socialism. Many in the media have followed his lead, pressing Democrats on whether or not they are socialists, despite the fact that none describe themselves as such. This pseudo-story not only has rendered the term “socialism” meaningless—conflating national health insurance and graduated tax systems with a government takeover of the entire economy—but it is erasing important distinctions in Democratic candidates’ policies that ought to be the focus of debate.

Understood for much of the twentieth century as a “halfway house between capitalism and communism,” in the words of The Atlantic’s Marian Tupy, socialism has always involved ownership of key industries by the state. None of the major candidates running for the Democratic nomination, including Sanders, are advocating for such an economic model in America. But the term has returned to political prominence nonetheless—first as a rhetorical shorthand on the left, then as ammunition for political attacks from the right, and finally as interview bait from lazy journalists.

Few would dispute that Sanders’s surprisingly popular campaign in 2016, when he ran on policies including Medicare for All and tuition-free college, was the most important catalyst for America’s renewed fascination with socialism. It’s also partly the source of the confusion in our discourse about the word’s meaning. As Thor Benson noted in The New Republic back in 2015, Sanders was “loose with his terminology,” usually making clear that he was a democratic socialist but sometimes simply calling himself a socialist. But the policies he embraced then, as now, largely fall under the tradition of democratic socialism. He’s not pushing for statist control of industry and capital, but more government spending and redistributive policies to drastically reduce—but not eliminate—economic inequality. He advocates for greater worker control over business, but stops short of calling for workers to control the means of production.

“When push comes to shove, he is a supporter of a social democratic Scandinavian-style welfare state in the form of better education, healthcare and social service provisions for the general population rather than the confiscation of companies from the private sector,” wrote Larry Liu in a prescient post in 2015 about the re-emergence of red-baiting.

Sanders has articulated his brand of democratic socialism as being about improving the lives of lower and middle-class Americans who have been left behind. “When I use the word socialist—and I know some people aren’t comfortable about it—I’m saying that it is imperative… that we create a government that works for all and not just the few,” he said in a 2015 speech articulating his political philosophy. “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”

Sanders’s loss to Hillary Clinton could have quieted the questions about socialism’s rise in America. Instead, Clinton lost to Trump, and Sanders’s ideas gained even more traction on the left. So have the politics he represents. Since 2016, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has increased from 6,000 to nearly 60,000. Today, nearly every major Democratic candidate embraces some form of universal health care, along with a host of other ambitious policies aimed at curbing inequality and climate change. Does that make them actual socialists, though?

Republicans think so, or at least want voters to think as much. They’re returning to what has been a standard playbook for Republicans, beginning in the McCarthy era and continuing to this day. Over the last 80 years, as recently detailed by historian Kevin Kruse, everything from the polio vaccine to the interstate highway system to the Civil Rights Act have been labeled as “socialism” by opponents. Under President Obama, Republicans argued that bailout programs and providing market-based affordable health care were examples of a turn towards socialism. Trump, per usual, has taken his party’s hyperbole to a new level: Embrace universal health care today, he warns, and end up like crumbling Venezuela tomorrow. There is no recognition of less extreme examples, like Britain’s single-payer system or the successful democratic socialist economies of Nordic countries; socialism can only lead to economic collapse and authoritarianism.

These attacks from the right are being aided by many in the media, who are pressing Democratic candidates about their devotion to “socialist” positions. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has built the early phase of her campaign around presenting herself as a sensible Democrat, out to improve social programs but not make them universal. This, in turn, has led The New York Times to frame the early stages of the Democratic primary as being a battle between “pragmatism” and “ideology.” Senator Cory Booker, a co-sponsor of the Medicare for All bill, has taken to warning supporters that it will be difficult to pass. Harris, the only candidate besides Sanders to advocate for the abolition of private insurance, has said on the campaign trail that only parts of the Green New Deal will be able to become law. As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, candidates are “being pressed from one side by core Democratic voters hungry for leftist policies favored by the most energized activists and, from the other, by the need to court centrist voters who could be alienated by the party’s turn to the left.” But they are also increasingly being pushed by members of the media to declare an allegiance between socialism and capitalism.

Hoping to foreclose such questioning, some Democrats are proposing new labels for themselves: Senator Elizabeth Warren reportedly identifies as a Democratic capitalist, telling Pod Save America’s Tommy Vietor on Thursday, “I see the value of markets and that they can produce a lot of good if they have rules.” Booker, pressed on where he stands in the political spectrum, has advocated for “universal love.” Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is mulling a 2020 bid, recently said, “I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”

The policies being advocated by some Democratic candidates are ambitious, but they hardly represent a turn toward socialism. Warren’s wealth tax, which would add a two percent levy to assets over $50 million, and Booker’s baby bonds, an innovative plan to curb racial inequality, would redistribute wealth, but don’t challenge the very structure of America’s economic system. The Green New Deal, which some candidates have embraced, is perhaps the most ambitious policy proposal to gain mainstream traction in decades, but it is not socialism, properly defined. While there are a number of Medicare for All proposals percolating, most do not involve a government takeover of the entire health care system, instead providing publicly financed insurance.

It’s yet another sign of the degradation of our political discourse that anything that deviates from the economic status quo is deemed “socialist.” There is a worthy discussion to be had about the merits of the proposals being put forth by the early slate of Democratic candidates, but it’s not one we’re having now. Instead, too many are wasting time asking questions whose answers are obvious, like whether or not Kamala Harris is a socialist.