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‘Socialism’ Is a Governing Philosophy. It’s Also an Offhand Insult

Socialism as a governing philosophy, an offhand insult, or both, is stirring politics again. From the U.S to the U.K. to Brazil and beyond, the term is being newly embraced, debated or disparaged amid larger conversations about rising inequality, the proper role of government, how to make sure capitalism works for average citizens — and what socialism really is, and isn’t.

1. Why is socialism being debated in the U.S.?

America’s best-known and highest-ranking self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is again pitching universal health care and tuition-free college education as he seeks the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. He now has some company in Congress in Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, members of Democratic Socialists of America who won election in November. Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are among the backers of a “Green New Deal” to zero out fossil fuels by 2030 and a “Medicare for All” nationalized health insurance system, both of which have been mocked by U.S. President Donald Trump.

2. Do these U.S. Democrats embrace the socialism label?

Generally speaking, no. Two dozen Democratic candidates for president overwhelmingly support policies to expand the social safety net, such as wider health care coverage, higher taxes on the rich, tougher financial regulation, student-debt forgiveness and an increase in the minimum wage. All but Sanders reject the “socialist” tag, however. Sanders cites approvingly how socialism is practiced in Denmark and Sweden, which provide health care and education paid for by high taxes. These nations (and others) embrace what’s known as democratic socialism, characterized by generous welfare systems, aggressive redistribution of wealth and regulations that rein in the private sector. But when Trump and other Republicans say socialism, that’s not what they mean.

3. How does Trump use the term?

Trump warns that Sanders and other liberal Democrats would turn the U.S. into a failed state resembling Venezuela. He’s working to revive a conservative line of attack on Democrats that dates back generations: that the American way of life is threatened by rising socialism or even by its most extreme form, communism. “America will never be a socialist country ever, never, never,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on April 29.

4. So what is socialism, exactly?

In a dictionary sense, it’s an economic and political system under which the government controls major industries and decides how its products and proceeds are distributed. Early socialists were driven by a utopian ideal of equality and social solidarity, which they saw as incompatible with unrestrained capitalism. Sanders, in 1990, said socialism “means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.” In practice today, in places like Scandinavia, socialism is akin to a highly regulated version of capitalism. To critics, socialism is best defined by the history of repressive and ultimately failed regimes that claimed the term, including the USSR — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

5. What do Americans think of socialism?

While many who lived through the Cold War recoil at the word, there’s widespread support for big government programs — Social Security payments to seniors, health coverage for the elderly and poor through Medicare and Medicaid, benefits for the unemployed and disabled — that once were derided as socialist in nature. Americans 18 to 29 in age view socialism more favorably than capitalism by 6 percentage points, according to an August 2018 Gallup poll. But to Americans who are over 65, favorable views of capitalism overwhelm favorable views of socialism, 60 percent to 28 percent; to many older Americans, socialism evokes Communist China and the Soviet Union.

6. Who else is rethinking socialism, and why?

In the U.K., the opposition Labour Party is led by an avowed socialist who proposes re-nationalizing rail, energy and water companies. In France, Yellow Vest protesters are agitating for more benefits paid for by the wealthy, and even the government of President Emmanuel Macron warns that capitalism fuels inequality and is ineffective at delivering goals in the public interest. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party under Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez strengthened its hand in local elections in April. But socialist movements are in decline in other European countries and in some South American nations. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, promises “liberation from socialism” following years under left-wing and centrist governments, while Ecuador — once associated with authoritarian socialist regimes such as those in Venezuela and Nicaragua — is moving in a new direction under President Lenin Moreno, who launched a national dialogue on economic and political reform.

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