Why is 'Socialism' a Dirty Word in US Politics?
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
For decades, American politics has been usually hostile towards social policies – such as subsidised healthcare or a strong welfare state – which are seen as mainstream in much of Europe. This article will explore some of the reasons behind the America’s severe and persistent allergy to the word ‘socialism’, and whether policies associated with the left have any future in the US.
Although socialism is a term often used interchangeably with communism, there are some key differences between these two schools of thought. Both ideologies stem from the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who opposed capitalism’s exploitation of workers by wealthy business owners and believed this could be resolved by greater public control over the production of goods and services.
Communism (also known as ‘revolutionary socialism’) is a more hard-line ideology which insists that a mass revolution is needed to transform capitalist society. Socialism, meanwhile, places more importance on the need for a democratically elected government. For this reason, some on the far left see socialism as a phase in the transition from a capitalist to a communist society, while others see it as an end in itself. Unlike communism, socialism gives people the right to their own property and possessions, to practice their religion, and to be financially rewarded based on their effort, all while having their basic needs provided.
The first 'red scare'
As in much of the developed world, socialism started to gain popularity in the US from the late 19th century. In 1912, a socialist presidential candidate named Eugene Debs won 6% of the popular vote. This might not sound very impressive, but it is incredibly unusual for US voters to stray from Republican or Democrat candidates.
Following the First World War, workers across the US went on a series of strikes to demand fairer wages. While support for socialist ideas was sweeping the US, a communist revolution was taking place in Russia, where Lenin’s Bolshevik party had overthrown the ruling aristocracy in 1917. It was in this context of revolution abroad and increasing unrest at home that the first ‘Red Scare’ engulfed America. The ‘Red Scare’ refers to the fear that socialists (whose signature colour is red) would overthrow the American government, just as Lenin’s communist revolution had done in Russia. This climate of fear culminated in the ‘Palmer raids’, during which the US Department of Justice raided suspected radical organisations and rounded up over 6,000 of their members.
McCarthyism and the Cold War
Following the Second World War, Soviet communist leader Joseph Stalin occupied much of Eastern Europe in order to form an ‘Eastern Bloc’ of Soviet-supporting states, giving birth to a fresh conflict. This ‘Cold War’, primarily between the US and the Soviet Union, would persist until the fall of the latter in 1991.
This ideological rivalry was portrayed as a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and nuclear warfare often seemed imminent. There was immense pressure and competition between the two states to prove their superiority – whether in sport, science, weapons, culture, or prosperity.
"From the start of the Cold War, socialism became associated with the enemy"
From the start of the Cold War, socialism in the US became associated with the enemy. American leaders spread the idea that communists were hiding everywhere, secretly trying to help the Soviet Union take over the world. The second ‘Red Scare’ became known as ‘McCarthyism’, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who played a prominent role in exposing espionage plots against the US, both real and imaginary. This created a climate of widespread fear and suspicion. In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg became the first American civilians to be executed for treason in peacetime, accused of spying for the Soviets. Their relatives still insist that they were innocent.
Socialism is often depicted as being contrary to everything the US stands for, in no small part due to the legacy of the Cold War. However, even before this conflict, there has always been a strong individualist tradition in the US, based on the idea that every person is free to control their own destiny.
This is linked to the concept of the ‘American Dream’, which dates back to the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its main principles of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. In practice, American individualism has tended to refer to the free flow of information and a free-market economy. The American people generally don’t appreciate the government interfering in their affairs, telling them how to live, or demanding too many taxes.
According to socialist thought, the people are responsible for looking after one another and ensuring that no one slips through the net, even if that means a certain level of personal sacrifice. Some therefore believe socialism is incompatible with ‘American values’.
When talking about socialism, it’s also important to distinguish between democratic socialism and communism (also known as revolutionary socialism).
Communist revolutions that have taken place in Russia, China, and Latin America have tended to be brutal and bloody, ultimately straying far from the values they claimed to represent. We have therefore never seen a truly socialist or communist state, and the extent to which this is either possible or desirable in the future is a point of debate even among those on the left.
Democratic socialism, on the other hand, refers to the peaceful implementation of socialist policies within the existing system. Currently, the best examples of democratic socialist states are the Nordic countries, whose citizens incidentally routinely score among the happiest, most prosperous, and most equal in the world.
"American politicians are often personally motivated to present an unfavourable view of socialism"
Clearly, socialism is not in the personal interests of the extremely wealthy because it implies greater redistribution of wealth to those who need it. American politicians, who are themselves often wealthy, are personally motivated to present an unfavourable view of socialism. In practice, this means that reforms which are not very radical, such as universal healthcare, are presented as a slippery slope towards a catastrophic revolution where everyone will be forced to give up their houses and live out their days in beige overalls.
The legacy of the ‘Red Scare’ lives on in US politics. You don’t have to be very far left of centre to be accused of being a socialist. To this day, the political spectrum in the US is heavily skewed toward the right compared to many European countries. Although most Western countries embrace a form of free market capitalism whereby the economy mostly runs on competition between privately-owned businesses, few do so with quite the same enthusiasm as the US.
Socialism and Neoliberalism
American society has always been proudly capitalist and individualist, but more so than ever since the 1980s. Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan popularised the mantra ‘greed is good’ under the political ideology of neoliberalism – the idea that the economy functions best when it’s left to its own devices, free from government intervention. To its critics, neoliberalism is capitalism on steroids.
Since the 2008 financial crash, which many commentators now agree was partly the result of neoliberal policies failing to properly regulate big banks, the wisdom of this economic approach has been increasingly questioned.
Furthermore, the economic devastation of Covid-19 has plunged millions of Americans into financial uncertainty and precarity. Many governments around the world are implementing what are effectively socialist policies by subsidising citizens’ wages until the economy reopens. The extent of these policies in the US has been limited, despite being one of the worst-affected countries worldwide, and further extensions to financial aid remain fiercely debated in Congress. The lack of a national furlough scheme, unlike much of Europe, has been partly blamed for the soaring unemployment rate seen at the outset of the pandemic.
Socialism's great comeback?
Socialism remains a dirty word to many US citizens. Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign featured many anti-socialist speeches, painting moderate figures such as Joe Biden as puppets of the ‘radical left’. Although Trump lost, his deep-rooted loathing of socialism is shared by many Americans. Furthermore, Joe Biden’s selection as Democratic presidential nominee over more left-wing candidates, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, doesn’t suggest a huge amount of confidence even among Democrats of a socialist victory in the near future.
It’s probably safe to assume that an American socialist revolution is not around the corner. Nevertheless, the fallout from the pandemic could well be a defining political moment. On the one hand, fears of sliding further into debt might make some people cautious about socialist reforms, which inevitably involve government spending. However, the unprecedented shutdown of so many sectors of the economy over the last year could provide fertile ground for further reforms to implement the kind of democratic socialist safety net seen in other countries. The 2020 election saw many Democrats elected on more progressive platforms than in previous years, and the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the link between capitalism and racial inequality.
The current situation bears some similarities to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal implemented the most comprehensive programme of social welfare measures seen in US history. Recently, support has grown in the US for a Green New Deal, which would combine efforts to reduce economic inequality with climate change reforms. With prominent supporters including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal is a divisive policy but one which might be able to capitalise on growing environmental and economic concerns across the US. As long as it doesn’t use the word ‘socialism’ too much, it might get somewhere.
For more articles on this topic, head to our dedicated US Politics section.