The US fear of socialism

When someone says they are not for socialism but for freedom, I can’t help but think it’s just a misunderstanding. Stripped of all the emotional attachments, “socialism” is just another word for government services. What is the ratio of government spending to GDP? By that metric, the US economy is about 38% socialist and Western European countries range from 41% (UK) to 56% (France) socialist. You might think we should slide a bit to the right or to the left, but no serious person thinks that existence of Medicare or state universities or the Center for Disease Prevention deprives them of their freedom and should be abolished.

But, those who fear socialism say, what about Russia and Venezuela? Why do you want us to become like them? This is a straw man argument. I have never heard a democratic socialist say that they would prefer a Russian or Venezuelan system. What they say is that they would like to adopt some of Western Europe’s more socialist policies per health care, education, etc.

Venezuela, anyway, is only about 40% socialist (based on the ratio of government spending to GDP), so the main problem there is not due to a higher measure of socialism. Yes, they did nationalize the oil, the cardinal “socialist” sin that always brings the US hammer down (cp. Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, etc.), but the biggest problem is internal (government corruption) and external (economic and political constraints imposed by the far more powerful US) pressures extraneous to socialism.

So we can argue about easing up or down on the socialist (government services) side rationally, or we can talk about people wanting to turn the US into Venezuela, which is just another way of saying we do not want to have a rational discussion. Politicians will endlessly try to foster the second option. They know that much of the US public can only grasp historical conditions in terms of football metaphors (good team/bad team), and they know very well how to exploit that weakness. But we need to step outside of that model, and start ignoring the politicians who deploy it, if we want seriously to better a system that is and will necessarily be a hybrid of capitalist and socialist formations.

xxx

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28 thoughts on “The US fear of socialism

  1. It’s about labels. Wittgenstein said a label is just an excuse to stop thinking. Kierkegaard said if you label me you negate me. But the problem is that people here don’t tend to think very deeply. It’s the ever present anti-intellectual strain. The bigger question is how to get people to accept a new definition of socialism. Bernie made headway with the younger crowd and that may be the only solution. Somehow I don’t see many old dogs like me learning new trucks

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  2. I watched a CNN interview that handled the topic of socialism in America. It was explained that the conservatives are members of a tribe, and to be a loyalist to the tribe, on MUST accept all of the beliefs of the tribe. Even though some of those tribal divergent ideas appear to be at least points for discussion, they cannot even begin to let the rest of the tribe see them weak. That is why Nuns had to travel in pairs, to make sure they don’t stray one bit from the “Sacred Doctrine”. That attitude is standing in the way of better healthcare and education for all. MAGA !!!

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    • I’m with you 100% but I don’t want to let my “progressive” brothers and sisters off the hook either. From hippie days up to the 1990s, progressives celebrated a cacophony of voices, but many younger progressives today are as tribal as your conservatives, enforcing their own norms just as inflexibly. So MAGA back to you, amigo!

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  3. Excellent essay, Doc! If you watch the Sunday morning news talk shows, the vast majority of the anchors and reporters promote the tribal trope; no room for nuance or rational discussion, just side-taking via labels. The media is feeding the ignorance from the same trough as the politicians.

    Division for the sake of political or financial gain is a slippery slope to national disintegration.

    “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”
    ― H.L. Mencken

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    • I share your view of the news, Brahmachari. I had to stop watching CNN and the big 3 networks a few months after Trump got in. (I’d never watched Fox except to get a visual on what disinformation was active in the public sphere.) It’s tough to find actual news sources now. Politico is not too bad.

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  4. I’m not sure what the Australian percent of socialism is, but we believe in a fair go for all, so I’d hope it’s pretty high. Curiously, I believe all the unrest in Western democracies boils down to too /much/ capitalism and nowhere near enough socialism. :/

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    • The only stat I can find on Australia says 27%, but different researchers use different metrics (all of my other stats are from the same site so they use the same metric). I would guess that Australia is closer to the US using the common metric of my other stats (38%, and possibly a bit misleading to the outsized US military budget). I believe your “unrest” comment accurately sums up one piece of the puzzle. From the 1930s to the 1960s to Occupy Wall St., economic inequality under capitalism has been a big theme of unrest. Competing with it in recent years is a right-wing populist unrest and an identity politics unrest. The latter is interesting in that it carries the “progressive” banner of “eco inequality/capitalism,” but is in some ways antithetical to traditional progressivism, in that it draws battle lines in a way that reinforces racial and gender divisions rather than integrating those groups in a fight that is based on class or ideological battle lines.

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  5. Higher taxes and Socialism go together.
    I want to take care of myself,my family and donate to charitable causes.
    Keep the government out of my business and my pocket.

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  6. A middle path needs to be found. A benevolent government vs a capitalist state. When we adopt a model we forget there may be many dissimilarities among people. At the end of the day it is people that make system work. As a human being, most of us prefer a Mix and match, not a black and white approach.

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  7. Socialism contains within it the distrust of individuality. It’s the individual that we must protect. It is the person with contrary ideas that we must protect. It’s the person who comes up with a new idea, one that might engage our understanding, that we must protect. With freedom comes responsibility, individually, and that through our efforts, we can become a stronger nation. Socialism does not trust that. Socialism puts into the hands of a group to oversee everyone else.
    Yes, I understand that government services helps people. But many of us would disagree with the level of services provided. Do we move towards greater freedom, but also greater individual responsibility, or do we move towards reduced freedom, but also less individual responsibility? All one has to do is follow the rabbit trail. Look at an aspect, understand it, and follow it to it’s logical conclusions, rhetoric set aside.

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    • Thanks, dolphinwrite. You raise good points, and it seems you and I could have a good long talk coming at the issue from different points of view. E.g., I think the individual is more likely to flourish with a measure of socialism comparable to Germany — where no individual ever goes bankrupt over health issues, no one carries crippling student debt into adult life, no one loses their health insurance when they change jobs, there is far less fear of street crime if you want to walk around the cities at night, the transportation infrastructure is infinitely better than in the US, and other policies are in place to insure that the middle class gets to enjoy the fruits of its own productivity. Many of these quasi-socialist policies seem to me to facilitate greater individual freedom. So at least we have some different angles should we ever meet up for discussion 🙂

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  8. This is a conversation I get so frustrated with. When did this horrible association start with the word socialist in the US? The same people who use the Venezuela argument are also the ones who talk about wanting a more universal health system, or better college tuition options similar to Europe. Then they declare loudly they in no way want the US to be socialist.
    It seems to be a fear mongering dialogue based on zero factual basis, meant to rally people behind our extreme capitalist society which doesn’t seem to be working for the majority. If only our media/government would stop dumbing down important conversations and falsely labeling and encourage people to make decisions and have conversations based on education of the topic.

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    • Thanks, Sooffwego. Yes, fear-mongering works with the electorate where nuanced conversation is needed. The media and government are both complicit. My only hope lies in the fact that Obama (to my mind, the best exemplar in recent history of nuanced conversation) was undefeated in his run. People will listen (not all people but a majority). But when I look at the divisive, scolding tone of Democrats/liberals today, Obama seems a million miles away.

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  9. Lots of good sense here. I simply so not understand the bogey-man approach to socialism whereby every public initiative is a descent into communism. Subtlety is not a feature of the debate in the US, and perhaps you’re right about football. Over here we’re used to three-day games of cricket that end in a draw.

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