The socialist agenda that some conservatives see lurking around every corner, hidden in everything from health insurance reform to stimulus spending to President Obama's policies, exasperates Louisvillian Fred Hicks.
As the leader of a local socialist group, Hicks says the use of the "S-word" as a political smear is a gross mischaracterization that ignores the reality that socialism remains a lonely movement, with his 40-person group struggling to get more than a dozen people to attend a meeting.
And yet while the term's recent popularity irks Hicks, the retired professor says it's also beginning to have an unexpected result: It's bringing newfound interest and attention to his cause.
"Suddenly there are more people who want to know what it actually is," said Hicks, head of the Committee of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, whose members seek more government regulation of business, health care and wages.
Nationwide, the Democratic Socialists of America partly credits the term's usage with a 64 percent rise in memberships between 2008 and 2009. The party now has nearly 7,000 U.S. members, and the 1,000-member Socialist Party USA has seen new chapters pop up in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Marvin Williams, who heads the Central Indiana chapter of the DSA, said that at a November convention, he noticed an increase in younger attendees, some drawn by "red-baiting" tactics, the practice of accusing people of being communist or socialist because of their liberal views.
"In my age group, I've seen a dramatic rise in the number of people who understand and agree with socialism," even though "getting people to actively participate is tough," said Edward Elam, a 26-year-old computer trainer who started a Young Democratic Socialists chapter at Jefferson Community College in 2007 that has since disbanded.
Elam said socialism doesn't carry the same negative Cold War connotations it did 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while interest has been further piqued by the recent banking crisis.
"This is a wonderful gift the Republicans are giving us," said Frank Llewellyn, the national director of the DSA. "We've had more attention in the last 12 months than in the last 12 years. But most people don't have a clue what socialism is."
Indeed, there's been no shortage of socialist name-calling, from John McCain's presidential campaign saying that Obama's policies resembled socialism, to the Republican National Committee's resolution calling on Democrats to "stop pushing our country toward socialism" to right-wing radio hosts equating the U.S. economic stimulus program to that of communist Russia.
Catherine Fosl, who directs the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville - and who describes herself as a democratic socialist - said the term is still a "powerful epithet" because of nearly a century of anti-communist rhetoric in the United States.
"It's being used by the right to discredit very minor reforms that involve using government," Fosl said. "Obama's positions are less socialistic than FDR's Social Security plan."
Socialism in Kentucky has never gained much of a foothold, despite its history of having strong immigrant-backed branches in Northern Kentucky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Socialist Party of Louisville in the early 1900s was known for political campaigns, lectures and pamphleteering. But it was crippled after its Jefferson Street headquarters was raided in 1920 by federal officials during a national crackdown on radicals.
No member was ever elected to a major office, and the movement further lost steam in the era of McCarthyism.
In 1954, Louisville activist Anne Braden, who had ties to leftist groups, was charged along with her husband with sedition after segregationists claimed communists seeking publicity had bombed a house she helped buy for a black family to protest Jim Crow housing practices.
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It was never proved, and the charges against Anne Braden were eventually dropped.
The Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and the demise of communism in the Soviet Union led many activists to splinter into issue-specific social justice groups, said Fosl, who studies left-leaning political movements.
Bryan Reinholdt, a 29-year-old Louisville elementary school teacher, said it was the economic inequalities he noticed in the United States after serving in Iraq in 2005 with the Army that led him to read about, and join, the socialists.
"Socialism can be a dirty word, because it's never been done right. Some people just think of Stalin and totalitarian regimes," he said.
Out of 2.9 million registered Kentucky voters, only 36 were affiliated with the Socialist Workers party. Indiana does not track voter affiliations.
Today, Elam, Hicks and others say they're fielding more questions than ever before as the term re-enters America's political lexicon.
"The question you get is, what is socialism, or is Obama a socialist?" said Billy Wharton, co-chairman of the Socialist Party USA. "People like to say Obama's a socialist, but he isn't anything close."
There's no precise definition, but Wharton's group wants a $15 minimum hourly wage, 30-hour workweeks, guaranteed employment, single-payer health care, community ownership of corporations, more graduated taxation and state-owned banks.
Some socialists say they don't want to destroy markets or nationalize everything, but they want less-stagnant wages, more regulation, and taxes that fund everyone's health care, education, unemployment insurance and job training.
Fosl said she'd like to see higher minimum wages, guaranteed family-leave time and more government subsidies for housing and higher education. But many view socialism as a perspective, rather than a system they ever see being enacted.
"Here's the thing about socialism," Hicks said. "You can't march on city hall and demand socialism. You can demand single-payer health care, but socialism isn't on the table. And I don't see any point in voting for a third party that gets half a percent of the vote."
Still, he hopes the issues socialists view as important will now get more attention and begin to change people's views.
A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 53 percent of Americans thought capitalism was better than socialism; 20 percent preferred socialism; and 27 percent were uncertain.
"There's a mistrust of government in this country, so people don't want the government taking charge of health care, banking or even schools," Hicks said. "But hopefully with what's going on nationally, we can keep the idea of real socialism alive."