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'Socialism' Isn't The Scare Word It Once Was

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the word 'socialism" which has gone from the fringes of American political discourse to the forefront of the national conversation.


Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2019: Interview with Ann Harrington; Review of book 'The Beneficiary.'; Commentary on the word 'socialism.'



This is FRESH AIR. Since the early 20th century, the word socialism has lived on the fringes of American political discourse. Now, suddenly, it's at the forefront of the national conversation. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has some thoughts on the label that came in from the cold.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Time was when the word socialism had a firm footing in the American political lexicon, with all the meanings it has collected in the other nations where it's taken root. It could be mixed or pure, planned or market, a dogma or simply an aspiration - the name of our desire, as the critic Irving Howe famously defined it. But after the American socialist movement crumbled in the 1920s, the right compacted the word into a single term of abuse. It became "The S Word," which is the title that John Nichols of The Nation magazine gave to his recent history of socialism in America.

From Social Security and unemployment insurance to Medicare and the Affordable Health Care Act, Republicans have labeled every social welfare program proposed by Democrats as socialist, socialistic or creeping socialism - a phrase coined by Thomas Dewey in 1939. Give socialism a foothold, they'd say, and nothing can arrest the slide to perdition. In 1936, Herbert Hoover said that F.D.R.'s socialist policies were leading America on a march to Moscow. With the fall of the Soviet empire half a century later, Republicans had to redirect that road to a warmer destination. As Vice President Pence told the Conservative Political Action Committee last March, we know where socialism leads; just look at Venezuela.

But the logic hasn't changed since Hoover's time. Passing universal health care or a $15 minimum wage is like picking up a Monopoly card that says, go directly to Caracas; do not pass Stockholm. Until recently, Democrats dismissed those charges as fearmongering. In 1952, Harry Truman called socialism a scare word and said that when a Republican says, down with socialism, he really means down with progress.

But the S-word isn't quite as spine-chilling now, particularly to millennials. They have no memory of the Cold War. They can't tell you what the second S in USSR was for. And the fall of the Berlin Wall is just one of a mash of '80s film clips, along with the Exxon Valdez, Pac-Man and Boy George.

The upheaval that shaped their political perceptions was the financial meltdown of the mid-2000. That made them keenly aware of the mayhem that Godzilla capitalism could wreak and of the economic inequality that the Occupy movement captured with quantitative precision with the new phrase, the 1%. Socialism began to sound like a needed corrective, particularly once it was personified by a cantankerous old senator from Vermont and a young congresswoman from New York with a digital native's talent for social media, both of them avowed socialists, as the media sometimes described them, in the way they've traditionally referred to avowed atheists and avowed homosexuals.

By 2018, a majority of millennials said they had a positive view of socialism, including quite a few Republicans. Not all of those who look kindly on socialism go on to label themselves as socialist or democratic socialists. To many of them, the word evokes phrases like the social contract, another term that's been in the air a lot lately. But however they describe themselves, the great majority of millennials associate socialism with New Deal-style programs like universal health care and access to free higher education, not state control of business.

And while they give low marks to capitalism, they aren't hostile to free markets. In fact, an overwhelming majority say they approve of the free enterprise system. That's not a contradiction. It's the difference between accepting the rules of the game and saying it could be played a little more decently. After all, you can love football but hate the NFL.

The fact is that most of the millennial fans of socialism don't see the role of government that differently from the people who still call themselves progressives or liberals, though they tend to be more dogged about it. To conservatives, that just means that millennials don't know the true meaning of the word socialism. Conservatives often seem to assign magical powers to the word. Call yourself a socialist, and you summon the specter of Stalin, whether you meant to or not. You think you're calling for guaranteed health care, but you're really calling for gulags and collectivization.

Actually, as John Nichols points out, the recent popularity of socialism has a lot to do with the way conservative media slathered the word over Barack Obama and his programs, both of which were fairly popular. That's a risk Republicans run when they frame the Democrats' positions as socialistic. They may inadvertently detoxify the brand, particularly when the connections to Marxism are hard to discern. Senator McConnell recently denounced what he called the Democrats' radical, half-baked socialist proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday. But more than two-thirds of Americans think that's a good idea. And if that makes them socialist, well, what's to be frightened of?

A lot of voters are still skittish about socialism so that all the Democratic hopefuls, other than Sanders, have had to forswear the label. Though as the Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum noted, it's not as if that will stop Republicans from calling them socialist anyway. But it's no longer exclusively the Republicans' word to define or demonize. It's a contested label now, just as conservative is on the right. It isn't yet clear where socialist will settle in the vocabulary of the American left as it jostles with labels like liberal and progressive, but it's not the S-word anymore. That might be the most consequential change in American political language since the era when Herbert Hoover was walking the Earth.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Mueller report with Rosalind Helderman, an investigative reporter for the national political staff of The Washington Post. She co-wrote the commentary and analysis in the Post's publication of the report. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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