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On the words ‘socialism,’ ‘fascism,’ and their political use in elections

Are we incapable of having a national conversation about the boundary between things the government does and things that are better left to the free market without resorting to name-calling and/or red-baiting?

Stockholm
Is "socialism" bad under the moderately socialist model used in Sweden, where it seems to have produced uninterrupted decades of prosperity, combined with a functioning democratic system of politics and produced some of the highest average living standards and longest life expectancies in the world?
REUTERS/Jessica Gow/Scanpix Sweden

Is Social Security “socialism?” It has “social” in its name. You don’t have the “freedom” to opt out. Maybe Americans who love “freedom” should get rid of it. Or should we just change the name of Social Security to “Freedom Security”?

Is Medicare “socialized medicine” for old people? What if we lowered the age to 60 — would that cross the line? Or maybe just put us on the “slippery slope?”

Is Medicaid “socialized medicine” for poor people? If so, should we end it? It only goes back to LBJ. Didn’t we have a pretty good country before that guy, who picked up dogs by their ears?

Is a progressive income tax inherently socialistic? Or is there some marginal rate so high that it tips the balance from an acceptably capitalistic tax on high incomes to “confiscatory socialism” that “punishes success” and undermines the incentive to work hard and try to get rich?

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I suppose some of the questions above are a tad snarky. But why? Are we incapable of having a national conversation about the boundary between things the government does and things that are better left to the free market without resorting to name-calling and/or red-baiting?

Wait! Stop everything! I heard that a migrant/refugee/undocumented alien/gang member/woman with two children/dark-skinned person or someone along those lines just made it across the southern border and is at large in America.

Never mind. False alarm. Or not. Back to musing about creeping socialism.

Is “socialism” always bad? Is it bad under the moderately socialist model used in Sweden and Norway, where it seems to have produced uninterrupted decades of prosperity, combined with a functioning democratic system of politics and produced some of the highest average living standards and longest life expectancies in the world?

Is Putinism socialism? It’s hard to find a coherent link except the catch-all expletive “Russia.” Putinism seems more like a sick autocratic kleptocracy designed to make the president and his cronies incredibly rich. Doesn’t sound like what Marx and Engels were preaching, nor what the kinder-gentler Scandinavian model has produced, but maybe I’m missing something.

And why, exactly, do Trump and Putin like each other so much?

Is Trumpism a form of “fascism?” I hear some people using the “f” word about Trump. It makes me nervous. Fascism is an amorphous concept in my mind, associated with Hitler and Mussolini, having something to do with a strongman style that runs roughshod over democratic norms.

But I just did a fair bit of googling to find a reliable definition of “fascism,” and it turns out there is no reliable definition. So if you feel like using the “f’ word in connection with Trump or Trumpism, you won’t be right, you won’t be wrong, and you won’t be helping the discussion, if the idea is to have a discussion. Is that the idea?

This little rant is weird and maybe too snotty or sarcastic. Let me try to save it by being serious for a couple of paragraphs.

In a democratic republic like ours, politics should be, among other things and maybe above all, a great public discussion about how we want to govern ourselves and whom we trust to lead us on the path to better. Perhaps there was a time when it was closer to that. Perhaps not. But it’s a valid goal.

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Lying and name-calling and using scare words like socialism and fascism are roughly the opposite of a great public discussion, even more so as they become meaningless terms. But if the use of such terms is the best way to win elections, and therefore to win great power, then I’m pretty worried about the state of our democracy.