Opinion: In defense of socialism

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Credit: Elizabeth Zhong

WSPN’s Atharva Weling discusses the accuracy and implications of accusations that Democratic politicians are socialists.

I run with a pretty liberal crowd, even by Wayland standards. While the average Democrat at our school might be a proponent of using more renewable energy or passing background checks on firearms, my friends are more concerned with overthrowing the neoliberal philosophy that preserves the aristocratic nature of our government. As a result, one word gets thrown out pretty frequently in the political catfights that they often pick: socialist.

But it’s not just petty high school squabbles – socialist is a pretty common label used by many politicians and media personalities on the right to describe Democratic policies. Single-payer healthcare? Socialized medicine. Higher taxes on the rich? Socialist economics. Expanding welfare programs? You would think Vladimir Lenin had risen from his grave to conduct the second October Revolution on American soil; that’s how some conservatives react.

Of course, I don’t want to generalize about all Republicans. There are plenty of level-headed members of the GOP who will avoid blurting out “the s-word” every time they are debating a Democrat. In the age of Trump, however, I’ve noticed that the term gets used more and more by the president’s supporters. I’ve seen more than a few videos where a person, sporting the ubiquitous bright-red “MAGA” hat, will announce in Nostradamus-Esque fashion that Biden’s victory will turn our country into a socialist, Orwellian state.

But there are a couple of really glaring flaws in that chain of logic. At best, such reasoning can hold back much-needed change from happening in America, and at worst, it can turn our country into the very authoritarian state it claims to repudiate. Let’s ask ourselves two major questions that lie at the center of such beliefs: one – Is Joe Biden a socialist? – and two – What would socialism in America really look like?

To answer either of those questions, we first have to look at the very definition of the term “socialism.” Britannica defines it as a “social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources.” In other words, a socialist country puts the government in charge of the goods and services we use every day, such as medicine or education, rather than leaving them in the hands of private corporations.

With that definition in mind, I want to answer the second question first: what would socialism in America really look like? Well, to some extent, we already see it. Social Security, public institutions like libraries and parks, and Medicaid are all examples of programs that follow a socialist line of thinking; if the government takes hold of private revenue via taxation, they can then redistribute that money into programs that benefit the poor. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that we should abolish Social Security, so why is there so much concern about socialism these days?

It’s partially because of the rise of a group known as the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA. Four members of Congress, most famously “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, are members of the organization, which has seen a steady increase in membership over the last few years, especially among young Americans. DSA is certainly not solely responsible for the popularity of socialism in the United States, but they are a good representation of the new foothold the ideology has gained in our country. All four members of Congress who are members of the DSA are young people of color who represent deep blue constituencies that are tired of seeing the same-old activity from the Democratic Party’s establishment. They want more radical change to address income inequality and climate change as well as the preservation of civil rights for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ Americans.

DSA, as the name suggests, supports the idea of “democratic socialism.” It’s a term you have most likely heard from the presidential campaigns of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the most vocal socialist in the U.S. Advocates of democratic socialism. Such advocates want to pass progressive economic policies, like Medicare for All or wealth taxes, through the democratic system. This is where one of the major criticisms of Republicans on the progressive movement falls flat. These progressives have no interest in ridding America of its democratic institutions, the way certain socialist and communist nations like Venezuela and Cuba did. They want to pass these policies but also preserve democracy, similar to European countries that have some of the highest standards of living in the world. The difference is key when discussing their movement and its implications for policy decisions in America.

Now, for the first question. Is Joe Biden part of the DSA? The answer is an emphatic no. Biden is about as far from socialist as you can find within the Democratic Party. A very moderate, establishment Democrat, he has repudiated almost every claim that he is anything remotely resembling a socialist. It’s very simple to see why if you look at the policies he has supported. Biden has supported neither Medicare for All nor the nationalization of any industry. He has supported creating jobs and raising taxes on the rich, but those are just hallmarks of liberal economic policy, not socialist concepts.

The simple problem with referring to Biden as a socialist is that it simply isn’t true. But, as I discussed earlier, that hasn’t prevented many on the right from using the term as a catch-all phrase for Democratic politicians. That’s really unfortunate because some of the policies that they call socialist could actually be modest reforms that do a great deal of good for our country. Take, for instance, the environment. Biden has stated that he opposes the Green New Deal proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and endorsed by Sanders and instead wants to implement a more modesty policy that could still invest in greener infrastructure in poorer communities and rebuild relationships with foreign nations on climate change. With the state of the climate in our world right now, this is absolutely necessary for us to get done, but conservatives in politics and in the media have decried Biden’s measure as socialism when it simply is not.

As I said earlier, stopping the needed policy is just the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that we continue to deepen the political divide in our country. Shouting “socialist” at every Democrat you meet only serves to alienate them from you and push more people on the right away from being willing to negotiate. Once divisions become deep enough, polarization can wreak havoc on our social fabric and ultimately destroy the democracy we hold so dear. You don’t have to be a socialist, even a democratic socialist to understand that we live in a scary time in American politics. Even if you don’t agree with one lick of the policies of Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, I encourage you to do a little more research on what your next words mean before you throw them out willy-nilly whenever you feel like you must.