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Opinion: The party that cried ‘socialism’
Steve Smith
Steve Smith

The pearl-clutching cry of “socialism” has been the cudgel used by conservatives to try and beat back every social program that has benefited Americans since the New Deal, from Social Security to unemployment insurance to Medicare. 

And the Tweeter-In-Chief’s all-caps screeching of the word will only get louder as we head into a primary season with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in contention for the Democratic nomination for president.

Never in the history of human language has a word been more misused, misunderstood, weaponized and demonized than socialism, so let’s stop hyperventilating for a moment and take a look at what socialism is and is not.

First off, socialism is not gulags, concentration camp or any other Fox News fever dream of left-wing totalitarianism. Sure, the Nazis called themselves the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, but North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, so I think we can disabuse ourselves of the notion that the words fascist dictatorships choose to describe themselves with are being used with honest intent.

The word socialism is traditionally associated with Marxist theory, but the concept of socialism actually predated Marx in classical economics, most notably by economist David Ricardo — whose work influenced Marx — though Marx later rejected many tenants of Ricardian Socialism. 

In classical economic theory, socialism works within market processes, not as a replacement for them, as in Marxism.

In America, the question, “Are you a capitalist or a socialist?” is a false choice. The answer, to those who understand how our economy works, is ... both. 

Our economy is a mixed economy, which is defined as a combination of private enterprise (capitalism) and public enterprise (socialism). When those two enterprises are balanced, our economy zings along at maximum freedom and efficiency. When imbalanced, we run into trouble.

The trick in a free market mixed economy is to balance the freedom of the owners with the freedom of the workers. One of the inherent flaws in capitalism is its inevitability for either a single entity or a small number of entities to gobble up every resource in its path, eventually leading to a tyranny of the private sector. 

On the other hand, a heavy-handed public sector can stifle the markets and slow economic activity. At worst, the public sector can hijack the private sector altogether, leading to a tyranny of the state. Obviously, neither of those extreme outcomes jibes with a free society, which is why we need a balance between the two enterprises.

What we’ve been living with for the last 40 years has been a slowly growing cancer of imbalance in our mixed economy, whose capitalist side of the scale got so weighed down, it crashed the entire world economy in 2008. 

Rather than rebalancing the scales after the crash, though, we doubled down on the private sector by issuing obscenely large bailouts to the banks that caused the crash in the first place — an ironic use of socialism if ever there was one — and the banks used those bailouts in ways that created more income inequality (which inhibits social mobility for the lower and middle classes), more market consolidation (which squashes competition and opportunity for small businesses), and allowed more power and wealth to be vacuumed up by a smaller and smaller number of people, to the point where today, the richest 1% of our population holds more wealth than the entire bottom 90%. 

The president loves to brag about the stock market, but we have to stop judging the health of the economy by how well the rich people are doing. Those of us in that bottom 90% know that

our paychecks struggle to keep up with the needs of our daily lives.

Therefore, it should not come as a shock to anyone that Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and AOC are gaining traction. They’re not arguing for authoritarian communism, they’re simply saying we need to rebalance the scales of our mixed economy.

Is anyone really surprised that a new generation of voters who have grown up in an America that has been at war their entire lives, whose parents lost homes and jobs in the 2008 crash, and who are entering the workforce with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt might just think, “Hmm ... maybe we ought to try something different to fix this mess, ‘cause what they’ve been doing ain’t working?”

So what would that rebalance look like? It would look like regulating the private sector in a way that values public need as much as the profit motive. It would look like making sure that everyone, regardless of class, race or gender has equal access to the same quality of resources that provide opportunities for success. 

It would look like expanding and ensuring voting rights, so that every single voting age American has a say in how they are governed.

That’s not “socialism” it’s problem solving. It’s common sense in a mixed economy, and it’s long past time we rebalance the scales. 

The younger voting generations understand this, which is why a majority of Millennials and Gen Z view socialism more favorably than capitalism, in recent polling. Even a majority of my fellow Gen Xers said government needs to be more involved in solving social problems in a recent Pew Research poll. 

So keep crying “socialism” at your own peril, GOP. The electorate will continue to pass you by.

Steve Smith is a husband, father, artist, and progressive. He serves on the Executive Board of the Forsyth County Democratic Committee, Follow Steve on Twitter @FoCoSteve.