The Remarkable Resilience of This Socialism Thing

The timing
was perfect -- on May 1, President Obama
would tell the University of Michigan graduates they ought to be able to
politics civilly, without fearing that people would start "Throwing
phrases like 'socialist' and 'Soviet-style takeover,' 'fascist' and
nut'" -- words he thought had "the effect of comparing our government, or
political opponents, to authoritarian and even murderous regimes."
Understandable enough, maybe, that first on the President's lips would
"socialist," seeing as h

The timing
was perfect -- on May 1, President Obama
would tell the University of Michigan graduates they ought to be able to
politics civilly, without fearing that people would start "Throwing
phrases like 'socialist' and 'Soviet-style takeover,' 'fascist' and
nut'" -- words he thought had "the effect of comparing our government, or
political opponents, to authoritarian and even murderous regimes."
Understandable enough, maybe, that first on the President's lips would
"socialist," seeing as how there were people who'd come to the
ceremony primarily to brandish signs calling him precisely that. But
a couple of days later we got the latest reminder of just how many
apparently don't feel a need to be sheltered from the word these

Twenty-nine percent of the nation, it seems, has "a
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
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
This latest news was actually not as good a showing for "socialism" as
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
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
either. Likewise, there are politicians who may not get upset being
a socialist, but so far as I can see, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
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

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
primarily like a reaction to the unity of purpose the Bush and Obama
Administrations had displayed in their bank bailout bills. And since
-- 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
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

Some were quite economic in describing the "positive
associations" that "socialism" held for them, offering virtual textbook

"Socialism is the collective and democratic
management of
shared resources, whether cultural (education), financial (pensions),
scientific (medical care), or natural (environmental laws)." Or,
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
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
thing is dead inert capital, and making IT all

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;"
"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
people meet and respect each other's needs, or a society based on the
principle of dog-eat-dog. Which would you prefer?"

Others spiritual:

"Human compassion like that mentioned by every
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
every species on it and the planet itself."


"Emphasis on collective welfare rather than
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
largest class of people rather than the smallest," or "Worker
democratic, personal responsibility, society concerned, protection of
minority, universal good, individual working for the better of the


"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

Or religious:

My absolute favorite -- someone explained how he held a
view of socialism because after all it's what Our Lady wants." So, to
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
wrong. Sing we of him who deeply cares and still with us our
bears. He who with strength the proud disowns, brings down the
from their thrones. By him the poor are lifted up; he satisfies
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
right, to sing and live Magnificatin crowded street and council

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
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
people really picked up much of what "socialism" suggests to them from
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" --
argument many have made over the years. But isn't the upshot of the
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

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
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
[that] does not establish a Canadian-style government-run single payer
care system" but "relies on mandates forcing every American to purchase
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
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
political discussion. Even if a third of the population is positive on
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
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.

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