The timing was perfect -- on May 1, President Obama would tell the University of Michigan graduates they ought to be able to discuss politics civilly, without fearing that people would start "Throwing around phrases like ‘socialist' and ‘Soviet-style takeover,' ‘fascist' and ‘right-wing nut'" -- words he thought had "the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian and even murderous regimes." Understandable enough, maybe, that first on the President's lips would be "socialist," seeing as how there were people who'd come to the commencement ceremony primarily to brandish signs calling him precisely that. But only a couple of days later we got the latest reminder of just how many people apparently don't feel a need to be sheltered from the word these days.
Twenty-nine percent of the nation, it seems, has "a positive reaction to the word "socialism" (with 59% in the negative) -- according to the Pew Research Center's latest findings. Democrats are actually 44% to 43% in the positive column, while the President's other perceived base, the under-30's, were only 49% to 43% negative. (Their view of "capitalism" was also negative, by the way -- 48% to 43%.) This latest news was actually not as good a showing for "socialism" as January's Gallup Poll where 36% were positive toward the idea, including 53% of Democrats and 61% of those identifying as "liberals." And last year, when Rasmussen Reports asked a more pointed question, it found 20% of the populace preferring socialism to capitalism, compared to 53% who preferred capitalism, with only a 33% to 37% spread among those under thirty.
How can this be? we might ask, given that you just about never encounter any positive treatment of "socialism" in the mass media and virtually everyone in the public sphere has been running away from the word for -- well, for maybe sixty years now. Yes, there may be liberal commentators who don't trash the concept (and the polls suggest they may even privately like it -- just as Rush Limbaugh has always said), but they sure won't praise it either. Likewise, there are politicians who may not get upset being called a socialist, but so far as I can see, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont remains the single member in either branch of Congress known to actually use the word in describing his views. Socialism is simply not a concept in public circulation.
There was that one amazing moment, of course -- the February 16, 2009 Newsweek cover announcing, "We are all socialists now." This extraordinary bit of journalistic exuberance now looks primarily like a reaction to the unity of purpose the Bush and Obama Administrations had displayed in their bank bailout bills. And since then -- except for those periodic polling reports -- it's pretty much been a year of Sarah Palin-type stuff about Obama leading us down the long march to "Soviet-Lite" socialism that FDR started, and so forth -- you could look it up. (And maybe a more recent Rasmussen Reports shows some of the effect - - apparently capitalism's edge is now up to 60-18%.)
Anyhow, with discussion of the topic nowhere to be found in the public realm, I figured maybe I should ask around -- and here's what I found.
Some were quite economic in describing the "positive associations" that "socialism" held for them, offering virtual textbook definitions:
"Socialism is the collective and democratic management of shared resources, whether cultural (education), financial (pensions), scientific (medical care), or natural (environmental laws)." Or, "Means equality doesn't it? Maximizes use values instead of exchange values. But mostly I like it because it minimizes the anarchy of capitalist production." And, "Ownership of natural resources by the people, ownership of the means of production by the people who work there." Also, "In ‘social'ism, the focus is on society and people. In capitalism, the central thing is dead inert capital, and making IT all important."
Others associated a broader meaning, calling it:
"Not an ideology nor is it an economic system. It is simply a national culture that prioritizes the reduction of human suffering;" or "Reflective of a set of values in which the community matters as much as the individual;" and "Solidarity -- if I had to say just one word" or "belief in the common good."
Some were more colloquial:
"It boils down to this: We can create a society in which people meet and respect each other's needs, or a society based on the principle of dog-eat-dog. Which would you prefer?"
"Human compassion like that mentioned by every spiritual belief on earth. Socialism to me is the political practice of one's spiritual belief in life's connection to each other person on this planet, every species on it and the planet itself."
"Emphasis on collective welfare rather than individual accumulation. Concern for the least well off rather than the richest. Recognition that economic rights are human rights and attempting to secure them. State power exercised in the interest of the largest class of people rather than the smallest," or "Worker involved, democratic, personal responsibility, society concerned, protection of the minority, universal good, individual working for the better of the whole."
"The first words that pop into my mind when I hear someone say "socialism": kindness, decency, plenty, fairness, peace. God help me, I see an image of flowers and rainbows and children playing."
"Pride in and /or responsibility for public institutions. And the institutions, government, NGO, or privately held, hopefully are able to support and be responsible for citizens. It is democratic. Capitalism -- 1 Dollar, 1 Vote -- is profoundly anti democratic"
My absolute favorite -- someone explained how he held a "positive view of socialism because after all it's what Our Lady wants." So, to the tune of the Internationale:
"Sing we a song of high revolt; make great the Lord, his name exalt! Sing we the song that Mary sang of God at war with human wrong. Sing we of him who deeply cares and still with us our burden bears. He who with strength the proud disowns, brings down the mighty from their thrones. By him the poor are lifted up; he satisfies with bread and cup the hungry men of many lands; the rich must go with empty hands. He calls us to revolt and fight with him for what is just and right, to sing and live Magnificatin crowded street and council flat."
When pressed as to what in the world he had sent along, the respondent explained that "It's a hymn based on the Magnificat of Mary that they actually sing in some churches in the UK."
Arguably the only thing new I learned from all this was the hymn. And yet, I could not fail to be struck by the breadth of response to my small survey. Now this is something I think you'd have to call an underground culture at this point -- one that runs deep as well as silent. After all, my reference to "textbook definitions" above was intended on the wry side, given that it's quite unlikely that any of these people really picked up much of what "socialism" suggests to them from actual text books. Nor -- the "Magnificat Internationale" notwithstanding - did they likely pick it up at services on Sunday -- or any other day of the week. This affinity for socialism seems to be an almost neutrino-like phenomenon -- it's all around, but it's undetected.
One person argued that it was, "Probably better to talk about ‘economic democracy' rather than socialism" because "once a word is tainted, I don't think it can be rehabilitated, at least for a generation or two" -- an argument many have made over the years. But isn't the upshot of the recent surveys that the "generation or two" may now have passed -- more than half a century since the McCarthy Hearings ended? And the younger you are, the more favorable you're now likely to be toward socialism -- at least so the polls say.
Another thought that "The great irony is that one of the reasons socialism polls well among young people is that the right has repeatedly attacked Obama and many of the things he supports as socialist. People look at it and say, ‘if that's socialism, I'm for it.'"
(The one public figure who has tried to correct this misperception of the President's policies is Texas Representative Ron Paul, who - - whatever else you might want to say about him -- does take these things seriously. He argues that the President's programs are "corporatist" rather than "socialist," citing "the health care bill that recently passed [that] does not establish a Canadian-style government-run single payer health care system" but "relies on mandates forcing every American to purchase private health insurance or pay a fine.")
So how does the effect of association of socialism with Obama compare with the fact that in the more than twenty years since the Soviet Union last "tainted" the word, "socialism" has come to now suggest places more like Sweden and France? A good question for the next poll -- no?
All of this is certainly not to suggest that there is no rhyme or reason to the President's efforts to keep the word beyond the pale of polite political discussion. Even if a third of the population is positive on the idea, you don't win many elections in this country with a third of the vote, so better to find a way to identify with the two-thirds. On the other hand, as for those who have "kept the faith" on socialism -- or just recently picked it up, well they might want to discuss it a bit.