A few decades ago, the mere accusation of being a socialist could ruin your life. During the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, Hollywood actors and writers who were never members of the Communist party found themselves blacklisted simply for refusing to name names. America’s iconic tramp, Charlie Chaplin, had endorsed progressive candidates, refused to cross picket lines during a strike, and praised the U.S.’s WWII ally, the Soviet Union, as the government had encouraged producers and studio executives to do; he had also made The Great Dictator (1940), a movie mocking Hitler before the U.S. was at war with the Nazis. This was strangely interpreted by the House Un-American Activities Committee to mean Chaplin was a pro-Communist sympathizer. They may have also assumed, incorrectly, that he was Jewish. It is a unifying thread that opponents of socialism often throw accusations of belonging to a religion that is ‘other’. Chaplin was banished to England and could not return again until the ‘70s to receive an honorary Academy Award.
As time passed, civil rights leaders were slandered as “socialists”. (It’s interesting to note that HUAC never investigated members of the Ku Klux Klan for being un-American.) Rightwing propagandists still refer to the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a communist front,” and televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson defended South Africa’s apartheid as the lesser evil to an imaginary communist threat. Presently, President Obama’s political enemies have tried to stigmatize him as a socialist (and a Muslim). Yet, none of these people were actually socialists. The real socialists have had to live in the closet. There was no Socialist Pride parade to march in or socialist bars to meet in.
It’s hard to believe that an out Socialist is now a serious candidate for President of the United States. And unlike Charlie Chaplin, Bernie Sanders actually is Jewish. Sure, when polled most Americans agree with Sanders on issues like a living minimum wage, campaign finance reform, income inequality, universal healthcare, tuition-free college and so on. But it still seems like this might be the earliest point in history that Americans can feel safe just admitting to agreeing with a Socialist. Maybe it’s still too soon and that’s why Sanders is running as a Democratic candidate. Nevertheless, his candidacy is a watershed moment in America’s socio-political history, whether he wins or loses.
Ever since the Cold War, Americans have been pressured to take sides in a false dichotomy between communism and capitalism. The animosity towards socialism is complicated further by how Americans on both the Right and Left often don’t seem to know how to define either term. Two prevailing myths have poisoned the discussion for generations: first, that socialism is synonymous with Communist totalitarian dictatorships, and second, that America has always been unquestionably capitalistic. The reality is that both systems exist in degrees: capitalism and socialism are often combined in various ways and are rarely implemented in a pure form. Even in cases when one does exclude the other, this doesn’t seem to last. The Soviet Union collapsed and China embraced limited capitalism in designated Special Economic Zones, so it shouldn’t be surprising that America has embraced forms of socialism to a limited extent as well.
Socialism and capitalism have been playing a perennial tug of war in the U.S. economy. Capitalism as defined by Marx certainly didn’t exist when the U.S. declared its independence, and its slavery-based economy couldn’t be considered anywhere close to it in retrospect. Our capitalist history doesn’t truly begin until after Abolition, but while the colonies fought the Revolutionary War, the now-extinct Shakers were establishing a model socialist utopian community. By the turn of the 20th century, Gilded Age inequality had been offset by the rise of labor unions. The Great Depression ushered in FDR’s New Deal, introducing Social Security, and the social safety net was expanded further in LBJ’s Great Society. Today, however, income inequality is at its highest since 1928 and labor union membership is at its lowest in 100 years. The time appears right for the pendulum to swing back again.
Perhaps the first indication of a directional change was socialist Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council in 2013, the first to do so in over a century. Republicans had been calling President Obama a socialist for years at this point, but when her rebuttals to the president’s State of the Union address made national news, it became apparent to everyone that he was not her comrade. It might have been Republican overuse of “socialist” as a pejorative that ultimately desensitized the public to this boogeyman, because for the first time in living memory, Americans were having open discussions about socialist policies without fear of stigmatism. As card-carrying socialists came out of the socialist closet (MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell and Cornel West, to name a few), Americans discovered that they were people just like everybody else, and that they had more in common with socialist views than previously thought. Those still in favor of for-profit prisons, for-profit education and for-profit healthcare are starting to look like the real monsters.
Now that the Cold War is over, the generation born after the fall of the Berlin wall won’t be able to relate to the irrational paranoia of the McCarthy era. We didn’t grow up with “duck and cover” drills in school in case of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis is ancient history, so we’re less likely to be afraid of renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba. And we’re less likely to see the practicality of basing domestic policy on foreign policy rivalries of the past. The negative association of communism has faded, and we can now see socialism on a broader spectrum, including the Nordic model of social democracy. False accusations of being a socialist didn’t prevent Obama from being elected twice. It is yet to be seen how far Bernie Sanders will go as an identified socialist, but the fact that he is open at all and still succeeding is remarkable progress.