There has been a lot of excitement about the fact that Kshama Sawant seems to have won her race for the Seattle City Council. The reason is that she ran as a socialist. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t mean that much. The world “socialist” has lost most of its meaning both on the left and on the right. And it is mostly a very good thing.
The Republicans are mostly to blame. They are experts at vilifying words. But they tend to take it too far. As I found myself asking conservatives a lot during the first two years of his presidency, “If Obama is a socialist, what was Stalin?” If you listen carefully to conservatives, you will quickly notice that to them, any deviation from their current ideology is, “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!”
Obama was called a socialist. Clinton was called a socialist before him. Is there any doubt that any Democratic president will be vilified as a socialist? This kind of name calling can only work for so long. After a while, the word becomes nothing more than “doodie pants.” Okay, we get it: you don’t like the Democrats so you call them socialists. But it doesn’t mean anything more than that.
Look, it would be one thing if Republicans actually did stand for some kind of libertarian utopia. But they don’t. They are among the biggest supporters for the three biggest socialist programs we have: Social Security, Medicare, and the military. That’s 80% of the federal budget, folks. So if the difference between “Socialist!” and “Patriotic American!” is that remaining 20%, I think we can say that the Republicans are being a mite hyperbolic. (And note: the Republicans are also for most of the remaining 20% too.)
Some time in the 1950s, it seemed that the definition of socialism got watered down. If you wanted to talk about central planning dictatorships, you talked of “communism.” If you wanted to talk about the theoretical worker utopia, you talked about “Marxism.” Socialism came to mean those nice European nations where people were free but the society wasn’t dog-eat-dog.
What this all means is that “socialism” became just a slightly more robust version of the system that we have. But the conservatives couldn’t scream “Communist!” at liberals because that was patently false. So they depended upon the historical connection between “socialism” and the Soviet Union to do their dirty work. But it doesn’t work anymore—at least not for people under 40 years old. To them, socialism is just another word for the kind of political system that they prefer. The truth is that most of what Sawant stands for is very much what they believe in.
But is Sawant an actual socialist? In a word, maybe. I’m not especially clear on all her positions, but when you get into the weeds of policy, she seems to have some ideas (or at least Socialist Alternative does) that I wouldn’t support. But from a practical standpoint, she’s just a real liberal and that’s why she has been elected. As I talk about all the time here, the United States has been pulled so far to the right that it would be years of leftist control before things got balanced and I started to disagree with anything the left wanted to do. Regardless, Sawant and her party seem pretty far removed from nationalizing the corporate world, which is what a real socialist would do.
If we start getting more aggressive liberal politicians running under the banner of socialism, you know who to blame: the conservatives. They distorted the usage of the word socialism for their own purposes for decades. And now the liberals are distorting it for their own. And I’ll be clear: I’m thrilled. I’ve always thought, “You think Obama’s a socialist?! I’ll show you a real socialist!” And it looks like that time may have come.
It is interesting to think about Elizabeth Warren becoming president. She is not at all a socialist, but you know the kind of freak out we would see from the right! Suddenly they would talk about how reasonable Obama was but this Warren chick is a… Socialist! Communist! Doodie pants!