It is one of the most pointed and most flexible pejoratives in the conservative lexicon, a word that can be twisted to fit nearly any situation.
So, when the Washington Legislature last week approved a family leave bill with bipartisan support in both chambers, Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, pulled out an old standby and said, “It’s one step toward a socialist state government.”
And why wouldn’t she? “Socialist” and its linguistic corollary, “socialism,” resonate as four-letter words in the American ear, making them useful for driving home a point without having to employ nuance. Not that anybody employs nuance these days. We live in an era, after all, in which the leader of the free world believes meaningful communication can be had 140 characters at a time.
Anyway, the point is not to focus on Pike. She did not create the current political climate and, to her credit, she is nothing if not consistent. Pike was re-elected last year with 56 percent of the vote, her constituents know what they are getting when she represents them in Olympia, and she works hard on their behalf. That is to be respected — even when you disagree with her.
Instead, the intent is to focus on this notion of “socialist” and its use as a pejorative suitable for nearly any occasion — regardless of accuracy. Webster’s tells us that “socialism” means “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
That would seem to make cries of socialism squishy at best and empty at worst. Socialism is about government ownership of the means of production, which would cause a collective aneurysm in the American public. Until the government begins taking over Starbucks, Boeing and Apple, we are far from becoming the United Socialists of America.
Benefits of capitalism
No, the United States remains deeply beholden to capitalism, as well it should. We have a gross domestic product of more than $19 trillion — 25 percent of the world’s production and about 60 percent bigger than the next-largest country, China. American capitalism has created an endless string of innovations that have benefitted the global quality of life and have generated an extraordinarily high standard of living.
And yet, there is reason for concern. A poll conducted last year by Harvard University found that 51 percent of American adults ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Only 42 percent approve of the system that helped create their iPhones and their lattes — and their economic freedom.
This is understandable, considering that millennials’ experience with capitalism consists largely of the Great Recession and the calamity that ensued. But it should be noted that the recession was much worse in many of the world’s other nations. And it should be noted that capitalism is the worst economic system — except for every other one ever conceived.
Yet as America wrestles with the future of capitalism and as conservatives throw around words such as socialist to try and instill fear, it seems that efforts would be better spent on trying to make capitalism work for the masses.
Take the family leave bill. Washington became the fifth state to approve of one, and when the law takes effect in 2020, it will allow employees to be paid while taking time off for a birth, adoption or a serious family illness. The alternative is for workers, even many with full-time jobs, to be unable to afford time off for life-changing events. If this counts as socialism, well, we’re all better for it.
Because if conservatives are intent upon opposing anything that falls under their definition of socialism, they should start dismantling police and fire departments. They should disassemble the U.S. military. They should leave roads and schools and social safety nets solely to the private sector.
That might help rid America of what some view as the evils of socialism, but it might also call to mind another pointed and flexible word: Dystopia.