Republicans are reluctant to campaign on their successes in having helped Trump besmirch American institutions and reputation. It’s been rumored that they might have to bring out a favorite old bugaboo: socialism. “It’s true we’re Trump’s toadies,” they can assure voters, “and we did forget we control an ostensibly independent branch of government. But you’ve really no choice but to vote for us because the alternative is [teeth grinding and serious grimace here] socialism.” My argument in this post is that waving accusations of socialism, a frequent Republican tactic, does not settle an argument and is not even a meaningful statement.
Historically, to conservatives, no other word (except perhaps Hillary, Obamacare, immigrant, or welfare) has the emotive verbal potency of the word socialism. But like other words that represent a range of beliefs and positions, the actual definition of socialism is hard to nail down. Historically, it meant the doctrines of Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Owen. One Wikipedia source calls socialism a “system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control.” But this academic definition is so broad as to embrace “a range from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal,” and from fascist to anarchist. In other words—coming from either Democrats or Republicans—it’s hard to distinguish an earnest definition of socialism from a mere dog whistle.
So I’ll abandon the search for academic precision and just go with an earnest definition taken from the experience I’ve had listening to politicians for a half dozen decades. In that time most use of the term referred to actions taken or paid for by government for some social good, including those that could have been done privately. It turns out that a great many undertakings supported by almost all Republicans—think neighborhood park, air traffic control—are easily included under that definition of socialism. But I’ll list a few more at random with no attempt to be complete.
Public roads, highways, bridges, tunnels. Food supply protection. Safety standards for cars, trucks, tires, and traffic. Cleanup of mining damage. Air and water pollution. Job training. Flood control. Childhood education. Medicaid. Traffic lights. Air traffic control. Bases when no longer a military necessary. Fire prevention and control. Weather forecasting. Veterans’ healthcare. Safety standards for construction, electrical appliances, aircraft seats, landing gear. Motorcycling head protection. Medicare. Social security. (These last two items take over individuals’ need to shift their economic resources from one part of their lives to another.) Subsidy of sports stadiums. And so forth. Obviously, a complete list of that “so forth” would be a very long list indeed, one that illustrates an important point.
Everyone is for some form or some degree of socialism. It is not that a specific economy can be fully socialistic or fully non-socialistic, just as there is no option for being totally capitalist versus having no capitalism. Similarly, it is either a lie or mere ornamental use of the term to pronounce that someone or some party is socialist or is not. But that doesn’t make the broad concept of socialism useless. There is always more or less socialism and varieties of the mix of various topics to which those variations apply. For one function a socialistic approach is desired, while for another function it is not desired. The histories, values, and aspirations of one political jurisdiction will be—should be—reflected in that mix; in fact, democracy demands it. Failure to recognize that socialism is a continuum will lead to much spinning of wheels in the electorate, argumentative energy wasted, dead-end socio-political conversation, and legislation entangled more than carefully carved out as a blend both coherent in itself and aligned with the values of that jurisdiction.
So what am I suggesting? First, any Democrat who claims to be for socialism in all instances where it can be applied should be either rejected or drilled extensively to justify how that much “purity” could exist. Second, any Republican who claims to be against socialism in all instances wherein it can be applied should be either rejected or drilled extensively to justify how that much purity could exist. Third, in either case, any Democrat or Republican still standing should be asked to explain his or her chosen mixture of the economy’s reliance on socialism versus capitalism (defined for this purpose as non- or anti-socialism). In any event, waving a flag either for or against socialism is neither responsible nor meaningful.