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

REUTERS/Jessica Gow/Scanpix Sweden
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?

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?

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.

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.


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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/14/2019 - 09:30 am.

    Any developed society is a combination of socialism and capitalism.
    Some things are done best by government (such as issuing money); others by private enterprise. Pure capitalism would be anarchy; no functional government. No one really wants that, so the question is really about the details of the relative mix.
    And the term “fascism” is derived from the Latin ‘fasces’ — the bundle of axes carried at the head of Roman legions. Mussolini revived it as a symbol of what he hoped would be his empire.

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 06/14/2019 - 11:53 am.

      Self interest is more complicated than you make it. They are voting their self interest mostly,,,your only definition of self interest = more government. People are smarter than you (dems) give them credit.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/14/2019 - 09:47 am.

    As the Trumpians told us:

    “Get your stinkin’ gummint hands off my Medicare!”

    When Elizabeth Warren went to West Virginia, as Trump Red a state as we’re going to find, and asked questions on the issues and explained the way she see’s it, the folks in attendance suddenly remembered that they all descended from FDR Democrats.

    The Ds win if they can convince folks to vote their self interest over the very alluring “screw the (fill in minority of choice)” interest.

  3. Submitted by richard owens on 06/14/2019 - 10:12 am.

    Can we stipulate that we have a MIXED ECONOMY?

    Does anyone really think we are simply a CAPITALIST ECONOMY?

    If Americans could agree that we tax ourselves in order to provide public spending for all those things we cannot pay for as individuals, we would at least begin an honest discussion. We would accept Rousseau’s Social Contract.

    Reagan’s calling the “government” the “big problem” found a home in the minds of so-called conservatives a long time ago. Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to be grateful for the public spending that built so many markets, invented so many miracle devices and medicines and saved us from banking failures and capitalist failure over and over and over.

    “Conservatives!” Wake up! Without regulations we would have no markets. Without decent wages there would be no purchasing power.

    Capitalism by itself is a dog-eat-dog zero sum game with mostly losers, poverty, desperation and unrest. It has nothing to offer as a viable method of governance, and it only leads to more injustice and more violence between people.

    We live in a world not of capitalism versus something else- we live in a world of MIXED ECONOMIES, where nation-states organize and capitalists use their wealth to organize labor and machines to make more profits.

    White Nationalism, the current form of Republicanism, will always be fascist, autocratic, authoritarian and hostile to those who oppose them. They are exclusive by definition.

    Social justice will always be anti-fascist, democratic and accepting that all wealth comes from the extra value earned by labor and machines.

    Our government and our governing must speak to the needs of the many, not the few. Government is not the enemy, it is the hope.

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 06/14/2019 - 11:55 am.

      virtually no one thinks we should have zero regulations or zero taxes.

      • Submitted by richard owens on 06/14/2019 - 02:14 pm.

        That’s quite an assertion!

        Trump brags about removing regulations put in place to protect consumers, the environment and the most vulnerable.

        “According to new estimates issued Thursday by the Internal Revenue Service, tax evasion is a pretty lucrative business, costing the federal government on average $458 billion per year between 2008 through 2010. That’s a slight increase from the previous estimate, issued in 2006, of $450 billion.”

        Republicans continually reduce the IRS budget, try to spin off private collectors and have cut the tax rates. They are proud to keep creating more debt, which they use to quash any and all public initiatives, including infrastructure.

        Your “virtually no one” is suspect. We can all see with our eyes.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/14/2019 - 10:19 am.

    I am a big fan of Orwell’s great essay, “Politics and the English Language” ,but what Orwell miss is the fact that politicians want to communicate badly. They prefer to use language to manipulate the voters, the kind of language Orwell decries in his essay.

  5. Submitted by Michael Rothman on 06/14/2019 - 10:19 am.

    Eric, There is actually a good definition of fascism in Bert Gross’s book Friendly Fascism Four elements:racism ( e.g anti-semitism), militarism( the fasces as symbol of Rome),imperialism(Rome , again), and repression of dissent. Gross’s book, published in the 80’s called American fascism ‘friendly’ because repression was not as severe as in the then Soviet Union.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/14/2019 - 11:46 am.

    Edited version of previous comment.


    Maybe, but I’m OK with it.

    Maybe, but I’m OK with this one, too.

    Probably, but that’s OK. Our top tax rate from 1936 to 1980 never dipped below 70% until Ronald Reagan led the “conservative” effort to lower tax rates in the 1980s. During the Eisenhower years, it reached 90%, and that period is often viewed (admittedly through rose-colored glasses) as a high point of postwar America, at least in economic terms. Dramatic lowering of tax rates did not produce Nirvana, even for Republicans. The current top tax rate is 37% – on income above $500,000. Raising the top rate back to 70%, as suggested in Ocasio-Cortez’ plan, would affect about 16,000 taxpayers out of tens of millions, and would only apply to income greater than $10 million. That will only seem outrageous to some of those 16,000, plus, perhaps, the subset of ideologues opposed to any taxation in any form.

  7. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 06/14/2019 - 12:01 pm.

    Actually, the words are easy to misuse without any fear or consequences for their misuse. Simply, the electorate, 75%, are idiots; tribalism, coupled with their racism and bigotry, willful ignorance affords politicians to distort their meaning.

    The Trump voter

  8. Submitted by John Evans on 06/14/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    You’re right that the S-word and the F-word aren’t very useful in contemporary discourse. But how do we talk about the really important, pressing differences of political philosophy that our politicians and our media never even try to articulate in any meaningful way? We simply don’t have the terms available to discuss the concepts that the S-word and the F-word are sometimes deployed to articulate.

  9. Submitted by Curtis Johnson on 06/14/2019 - 12:33 pm.

    Great column, Eric. Do more like this. It can’t hurt and might help. We have to find bridges to occupy between these divisive camps.

  10. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/14/2019 - 12:44 pm.

    Umberto Eco, who lived through fascism, said that fascism took many different forms (Italian fascism, Nazism, Spanish theocratic fascism, etc.), but all fascist regimes shared 14 commonalities:
    Rejection of modernism;
    Anti-intellectualism, or a “cult of action for action’s sake;”
    Equation of disagreement with treason;
    Nationalism, taking the form of a rejection of racial or ethnic diversity;
    Appeal to a frustrated middle class;
    Obsession with conspiracies, especially internal threats;
    A shifting focus, as in a belief that the nation is at once too weak to withstand threats, but strong enough to defeat its enemies;
    Perpetual war or struggle;
    Popular elitism, as in every one of our people is superior to the rest of the world;
    A cult of heroism;
    Machismo, which is “both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality;”
    The people are a monolithic entity, and there will is expressed through the actions of the leader; and
    Newspeak, “an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

    Whether the US is there, or is on the way there, is another matter.

  11. Submitted by Misty Martin on 06/14/2019 - 01:13 pm.


    You would have made a great teacher. As it is, I love reading your articles and they almost ALWAYS make me think and dig deeper to find out the true reality in this constantly changing political climate that we Americans, find ourselves in with the presidential race of 2020 always sounding so loudly in our ears.

    Thank you for challenging your readers to think for themselves. God bless you.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/15/2019 - 09:43 am.

    Any term or “word” can devolve into invective in the hands of debate gamers and the intellectually dishonest; “socialism” and “fascism” are not different in this regard than any other term. You can ask what ANY word really means, that’s not necessarily a shrewd question.

    I think if you’re hung up on these terms and their “meaning” it tells us that your’re struggling with concepts outside of your comfort zone, it doesn’t tell us that there’s something wrong with the terms or the people who use them. Let’s talk about what terms like: “pragmatic”, “populist”, “centrist”, or “electable” mean? Just because you’re not accustomed to using terms like “Fascism” or “socialism” doesn’t mean they’re more problematic the words you’re accustomed to using.

    We’re talking about applicable concepts here. Like any words in any discourse if you want to know what I mean when say Trump is a Fascists… ask me… It’s NOT a secret. Likewise with “socialism”, if you want to know what we’re talking about… just ask, we’ll tell you. Just because YOU get confused when you look words up doesn’t mean those using those words don’t what they’re talking about.

    I see this as an attempt to disparage a discourse that some are not familiar or comfortable with, it’s not an empirical challenge. Ask AOC what she means by “socialism” and she’ll tell you, it’s not THAT confusing.

    Nazis are Fascist. Trump said Nazis are or can be “good” people. That makes Trump a Fascist because only a Fascist would make THAT claim. What’s confusing about this? Socialism is about assembling collective resources and deploying them to maximize social benefits.

    You can dive into the weeds and contemplate whether or not socialism requires public ownership of the means of production if you want… but the rest of are just going to collect our Social Security checks when we retire. And if we end up with Medicare For All… we’ll just get our health care an go about our lives.

    At any rate if you want to know what we’re talking about, you have to talk to us. The problem is that status-quo centrists don’t WANT to talk to us, they prefer to shut down the conversation before it starts. Can anyone point to a single article in Minnpost by Eric or anyone else that actually describes Medicare for All, or indeed ANY of the components of the progressive agenda? No… we’d rather talk about whether or not it’s “socialism” and pretend that the entire conversation cannot possibly be coherent because when you look up these words it gets confusing. No one is actually saying anything intelligent or thoughful, they’re just calling each other names.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/15/2019 - 10:02 am.

    Anyways, regarding Fascism, I think the most interesting observation we can make at this point regards the complete and utter failure among political scientists and historians in 2016. If you’ll recall many of these “experts” assured us that Trump was no Fascist during the run-up to the election.

    If we want to have an interesting conversation we could discuss how and why so many “learned” people could be so completely wrong and miss something sooooo obvious at the time.

    I think part of the problem was that these academics made the assumption that an American Fascist would necessarily look like Hitler or Mussolini. The historical problem with THAT assumption is that Hitler and Mussolini weren’t just Fascists themselves, they ran Fascist governments and regimes. I think the problem with academics in 2016 was that they couldn’t imagine an American Fascist emerging within a liberal democracy without overthrowing it. The academic assumption seems to have been that you can’t have a Fascist president without a Fascist government. We have a Fascist president, but we don’t have a Fascist government… yet. At any rate make no mistake, we ARE dealing with Fascism here and we deny THAT fact our own peril. And the problem isn’t just Trump.

  14. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/15/2019 - 10:30 am.

    Once again, in citing Sweden (or Norway, or Finland) we are remiss not to observe that these are culturally homogeneous populations, less than 1/10 the size of the US. They also have large oil reserves which they use to subsidize their socialist programs.

    Finally, we must observe that all of these countries are finding it harder and harder to maintain their social programs as in-migration impacts their economies and social stability.

    IMO, they are bellwethers we should take heed of.

  15. Submitted by Ken Tschumper on 06/15/2019 - 07:59 pm.

    Good discussion. However it might be more useful and productive to start from a different point in the capitalism-socialism discussion.

    I hope we can all agree that we currently have a mixed economy. The point of debate is what that mix is currently and what it should be in the future.

    Let’s start from asking the question; What is the best way to meet our society’s needs?

    Markets work great for meeting some of our needs, like cars, clothes and appliances. People can shop around, compare prices and negotiate with suppliers for the best deals.

    Markets are not good at meeting big societal long-term problems like healthcare, retirement and some aspects of housing (affordable). Markets work best when you have clear, easily understood price signals. It’s hard to shop around for the best deal when you have a broken arm or a heart attack that needs immediate attention Same thing with retirement when you don’t know how long you are going to live or how much it is going to cost.

    We didn’t develop Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and anything else that some would label as “socialism” out of some form of ideological purity, we did it out of widely held perceptions that “markets” were not working to adequately address public needs. We did these things for “practical and pragmatic reasons” to accomplish clear goals.

    I think we are on the edge,as a country, of making some big changes in the ‘capitalism-socialism” mix in the next 25 years in the areas of family leave-childcare and universal healthcare. I predict that in the next 25 years we will have something that looks like Medicare for All because it makes economic sense as the best way to meet the public need of universal healthcare, not because of Bernie Sander’s call for democratic socialism.

  16. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/15/2019 - 11:14 pm.

    The question is why do we not spend more time talking about the reality of the application of the “free market” and capitalism to the health of people of the world. Many are doing that but do not have the reins of the media in their hands so the the conversation gets stilted and bend. But the time is rapidly approaching where that inspection has to happen as we are suffering and suffocating from not doing that close up look immediately. Capitalism is killing the world.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/16/2019 - 10:13 am.

    Actually, other than Eric’s articles I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about socialism or Fascism. I know Eric has predicted that the “s” word was/is going to be a big deal but I’m not seeing it. Likewise the “controversy” surrounding Trump’s Fascism has pretty much faded away. Republicans take umbrage to the term but for most part it’s become a mundane observation everywhere else.

    We know that the progressive agenda is popular, a clear majority want MFA for instance, most people don’t seem to care whether or not we call it “socialism”. In some ways it looks to me like Eric keeps trying to drag us into a conversation we’re not having and don’t really need to have.

    As Mr. Tschumper and Mr. Mushich suggest, we don’t need to give our policies ideological labels, we can just solve problems and work things out.

  18. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 06/16/2019 - 10:54 am.

    Well, if the National Socialism of Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s was an unholy alliance between the State and Corporations for the elevation of a Thousand Year Reich, with also a populace generally supportive of eternal war and deliberately ignorant about attempts to exterminate certain people..

    While America’s unholy alliance of Corporations, Banks and the State, in the elevation of Pax Americana, with a population basically unquestioning of an eternal war machine killing millions over time, and the incarceration of 10’s of millions of fellow citizens for dubious reasons (if not exterminating), while being deliberately ignorant of an industrial food system that exterminates pollinators and puts 100’s of millions of animals into the worst kind of bondage, while corporations foreign and domestic are allowed to pollute with near impunity…

    It is as it does….

  19. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/16/2019 - 01:43 pm.

    “Capitalism is killing the world.“

    That’s what the Bolsheviks said, just before the Communists liquidated them.

    More recently, it’s what Hugo Chavez said, just before he dragged Venezuela Back into the 3rd world.

    …”Sure, sure. But we’re gonna do it right this time!”

    How much clearer can history be? Or perhaps the question is, how can people be so blind?

  20. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/16/2019 - 09:34 pm.

    If The US ever adopts Socialized medicine, in short order we shall find the government dictating our behaviors, and curbing our constitutional rights in the interests of maintaining Socialized medicine.

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