In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.”
There, in 33 words, is a succinct description of socialism’s appeal.
Later in Wigan Pier, Orwell, a self-described “democratic socialist,” offered an even briefer explanation of what turns people away from socialism.
“Socialism, at least in this island [England], does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia.”
In less than 100 words, Orwell illustrated that “socialism” is complicated business.
But many Americans will not know how complicated the subject can be if they are only now beginning to encounter the word “socialism” on a more regular basis in political discourse.
Socialism has long been a dirty word in American politics. In a 2016 Gallup poll, only 35 percent of Americans regarded the term “socialism” positively, while 58 percent viewed the term negatively. For a long time, calling a U.S. political candidate a socialist has been an effective way of derailing that candidacy.
But with the recent rise of politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described democratic socialist who recently won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, the word “socialism” has become a more familiar part of the lexicon of mainstream U.S. politics.
Among pundits and politicians, the reaction to this turn of events has included hysterical fear-mongering.
“Why do you think the USSR stood for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?” wrote Selwyn Duke in the New American earlier this month.
“The rise of socialism has never been more clear,” said Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro on June 30. “We are witnessing the evolution of a socialist coup.”
According to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, which unseated 19-year incumbent Joe Crowley, “is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”
But the idea that we don’t already have a well-established form of socialism here in the United States is clearly at odds with the facts, however politically inconvenient those facts may be.
Yes, arguments about the size and scope of the federal government are as old as the United States itself. But it has been clear for a long time that the vast majority of Americans want the government involved in the regulation of the economy and the provision of various social programs.
In the mid-19th century, the debate largely concerned using public monies to improve transportation. By the early 20th century, the debate was over the regulation of big businesses and ensuring acceptable working conditions.
In the 1930s, Americans were willing to embrace the idea that government had a legitimate role in regulating the general economy and providing citizens with guaranteed income in old age and other economically limiting circumstances.
In the 1950s and 1960s, voters supported the idea that the federal government should be involved in public education.
In the 1970s, we embraced the idea that the government should be involved directly in protecting the natural environment.
This pattern continues. For example, the majority of Americans today support the use of federal funds to guarantee that all citizens have access to basic health care services.
Opposition to these initiatives has often been intense, and a significant number of voters have regularly supported political candidates opposed to the expansion of the federal government.
Many critics argued that socialism is un-American, an attitude bolstered by the Red Scares that followed both World War I and World War II.
The sense that socialism is alien is typified by the comments of film character Ferris Bueller, who said: “-Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”
But there is another truth at work, and that truth is that most Americans do not believe that the political agenda of democratic socialists is at odds with American ideals.
This is not to say that socialism, in whatever form it might take, is the answer to our political or social problems. But it is to argue that the democratic socialism espoused by politicians like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez offers useful perspectives.
Perhaps more to point, the anti-socialist hysteria places an unhealthy limit on the number of voices in our political discourse.
As the U.S. searches for ways to rebuild infrastructure, reform health care, and more, we clearly benefit from more voices and more ideas, not fewer of them.
We also benefit by asking questions about the socialist agenda, rather than rejecting outright the ideas on which that agenda is based.
So, let’s dispense with the labels that form the basis of the deepening, and often toxic, partisanship in American politics.
Instead of damning Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her political views, let’s find out who she wants to help and how she plans to pay for it. Let’s find out how she plans to help create new and better jobs, how she intends to advance the interests of the small businesses that are vital to the American economy, and so on.
You may not agree with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s answers, but let’s hope all of us can agree that more thoughtful voices, particularly those that seek to improve the quality of our lives and communities, should always be welcome in the American conversation.
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