I believe it was Tallyrand who said “Man was given speech to disguise his thoughts, and words to disguise his eyes.” Had he been a contemporary American, he’d have been an enthusiastic Republican.
The late, legendary campaign consultant Lee Atwater once explained how Republicans won the vote of racists by manipulating language:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Nowadays, the economic linguistic game revolves around “socialism.” It took me a long time to realize that it’s the same game.
to hear Republicans tell it, virtually everything government does is socialism; it is utterly foreign to the United States, and it cannot be implemented without imposing tyranny on the American people, along with poverty and deprivation such as we see today in Venezuela, where socialism allegedly destroyed the country.
It’s necessary to label and distort, to hide the real message, because many of the programs that trigger GOP hysteria over “socialism” are wildly popular: Medicare and Social Security come to mind. (Others are expected government services. As one friend noted on Facebook when it began to snow, “Look out for those socialist snowplows!”)
If GOP pundits and policymakers really wanted to discuss economics, rather than hide their actual motives, they would define their terms. They don’t, so allow me.
Socialism is generally what we call mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S. (Not as much higher as most think, actually)—Scandinavian countries are an example. The terminology tends to obscure the fact that most of those countries also maintain thriving private sector capitalist markets.
Republicans misuse of the term also obscures the considerable amount of socialism enjoyed by wealthy Americans. A system that privatizes profits and socializes losses is hardly free-market capitalism. It’s socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor.
Socialism isn’t Communism. Communists believe that equality is defined by equal results. All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share. In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).
Socialism isn’t Fascism. Some of our dimmer policymakers like to say that Nazi Germany was “Socialist” because fascism was sometimes called “national Socialism,” however the two are very different. In fascist systems, the nation is elevated—a fervent nationalism (MAGA?) is central to fascist philosophy. Although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to insist upon traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.
The biggest problem with turning words into epithets, or using them to veil our real meaning isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest; it’s because labeling and dismissing avoids the conversations we ought to be having.
For one thing, the use of economic language to obscure real motives has left the U.S. with the most dysfunctional–and expensive– delivery of health care in the developed world.
The basic question in any economic system is: what should government do, and what should be left to the private sector? Another way to put that is: what services should be supplied communally? We “socialize” police and fire protection, provision of most physical infrastructure, and numerous other services–parks, garbage collection, schools, those snow plows–because it is fairer, more efficient and/or more cost-effective to do so. Those decisions don’t turn us into Venezuela.
When you deconstruct it, the GOP opposition to programs they label “socialism” is explained perfectly by Atwater’s admission. White Republican Americans are unwilling to have their taxes benefit “those people.”