STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The dirtiest word in contemporary American politics is the term “socialist.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 60 percent of Americans had negative reactions to the term — which may explain why, throughout the GOP primary season, the “socialist” tag has been applied with vigor by Republican politicians to the Democratic president they all hope to unseat.
But how appropriate is their application of that term to Barack Obama? Is it being used accurately, or merely to inflame the emotions of the Republican political base? And how did the term become so emotionally charged?
For perspective, we turned to Steven Snow and Patricia Moynagh, two professors of government and politics at Wagner College.
‘SIXTY YEARS of the Cold War helps explain it,” said Patricia Moynagh. “The association of socialism with 'bad places' like North Korea, Cuba, the former Soviet Union. It became the ‘boogie monster.’ ”
Moynagh, a political theorist, said that the extreme antipathy toward the term “socialism” in America could be explained in theoretical terms.
“There’s a great line by Karl Marx that I think is appropriate, something to the effect that ‘the ruling ideology in every epoch is the ideology of the ruling class.’ If you’ve got 60 years of maligning socialism, and you’re trying to promote your own interests and the interests of your class,” she said, it’s understandable how the term “socialism” has “taken a beating.”
Moynagh says it’s ironic that GOP candidates are trying to stick President Obama with the “socialist” tag.
“He’s really a center-right politician, in practice,” she said, “though he thinks of himself as a progressive.
“Had he been a socialist, he would have approached the banking crisis a few years ago differently, maybe nationalizing some of the banks — not all of them, but some of them. But he didn’t do anything like that.”
Moynagh added that, even though many on the right characterize the health insurance reforms Obama pushed through Congress a couple of years ago as “socialist,” most of them are probably happy with at least some of its particular provisions, such as the one that allows parents to continue including their adult children on their health insurance until they reach age 26.
STEVEN SNOW observed that, while democratic socialist parties are a routine feature of the political landscape in most Western countries — including our next-door neighbor to the north — the United States has never had a socialist party that was politically successful. The result is that most Americans have no first-hand experience of what a real, ordinary socialist party looks like.
“The closest thing we had to a successful socialist candidate for president was Eugene V. Debs, who ran his 1920 campaign from a prison cell,” Snow said. “He was fantastically popular in comparison to any other socialist who’s run — but in terms of real electoral success, he didn’t come close.”
In part, Snow said, because of our history of immigration.
“The large numbers of working-class immigrants have been divided from one another by ethnicity, language and religion,” Snow said. “Race is also a key issue here. White workers have had a very difficult time expressing class solidarity with African-American workers due to racism. This has translated into little electoral support from a united working class for socialist parties. Because the socialist parties in the U.S. have been exceptionally weak, and have never held national power, Americans have had little experience with or understanding of socialism.”
Like Moynagh, Snow concludes that “socialism” became the bogeyman of American politics as a result of the Cold War.
“Due to the Cold War, the U.S. population has been fed a constant diet of anti-socialist propaganda,” Snow said. “When President Truman wanted money from Congress in 1947 to fight the Cold War, for example, Senator Vandenburg told him that if he wanted to be effective, his speech must ‘scare the hell out of the American people.’ This was precisely what happened, and I think it has influenced our attitudes about socialism ever since. Socialism was equated with the Soviet Union — which, we were told, was our mortal enemy.
“The fact is, Americans are often in favor of socialist policies but oppose ‘socialism’ in some abstract, Stalinist, scary sense,” Snow said. “For instance, public-opinion polling has indicated that 70 to 80 percent of Americans agree with the notion that the government should help the truly needy who are unable to help themselves.”