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President Joe Biden recently announced the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion proposal to rebuild crumbling transportation infrastructure, decarbonize the economy, and deliver clean water and high-speed broadband while advancing environmental justice and socioeconomic equality.
The bill, seen by many Democrats as a necessary investment, has received significant backlash from Republicans, including Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) who said the plan was an “out-of-control socialist spending spree” outlining “the left’s radical agenda.”
It seems that Republicans cry socialism every time Democrats propose something they deem too expensive or progressive. The critique is uniformly applied to politicians across the liberal spectrum from centrists like Biden to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), even though Sanders is notably a democratic socialist, not a socialist.
What is perhaps even more bizarre than this conservative strategy is that Democrats have done little to systematically fight this false characterization. Additionally, many liberal Harvard students perpetuate the problem by using the terms interchangeably while nonetheless believing in capitalist democratic socialist policies, not traditionally socialist ones.
Informing American voters about the distinction between socialism, democratic socialism, and capitalism could take away a powerful — and inaccurate — tool Republicans use to impede discussions about Democrat’s priorities on topics like climate change and systemic racism.
First, let’s agree on some basic definitions.
Capitalism is the dominant global economic system, wherein a country’s means of production are privately owned, and production and income distribution are determined largely through the operation of unregulated markets, apart from minimal government intervention. Socialism, the antithesis of capitalism, is a social and economic theory that calls for public rather than private ownership, in which everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it.
Democratic socialism is difficult to define because of its range of interpretations among supporters. Sanders champions the movement to “reform a political system which is corrupt” and “create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.” For Sanders, democratic socialist policies include expanding voting access and medical care, improving workplace democracy, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and promoting environmental and economic justice through the Green New Deal (which, by the way, in no way advocates for the government to take over the means of production).
Looking closely at his definition of democratic socialism and various proposals to implement it, Sanders never argues for an all-powerful government bureaucracy. Rather, he proposes democratization of our political and economic system through government intervention. These interventions and regulations may be farther reaching than most members of Congress support, but that doesn’t make him — or other progressive politicians — socialists.
Republicans have good reason to reject socialism. It has never been implemented fully or purely in history, leaving questions remaining about how it would work in practice. When components have been adopted, as in 1920s Vienna, China after 1949, and Cuba since 1959, self-described socialist political parties have seized power for themselves to the detriment of their supposed egalitarian values.
With this caveat considered, Republicans crying socialism is nonetheless a gross mischaracterization of progressive policies. So how then did this pattern come about in the first place?
Republicans’ hysteria around minimal government regulation can be traced back to the Reagan era. Viennese political theorist Friedrick Hayek argued in his 1944 book “The Road to Serfdom” that socialism “would concentrate power in the state in a manner similar to that in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.” Though Hayek advocated “for a ‘middle way’ between state socialism and unstructured capitalism,” Keynes later argued that Hayek’s failure to determine how much regulation was too much suggests that any move towards economic planning will launch society “on the slippery path which will lead you in due course over the precipice.”
Reagan’s economic advisors interpreted Hayek’s work to support their free-market principles. Ever since, a significant portion of the American population has associated perceived “big government” with socialism and socialism with totalitarianism. Even though Hayek never argued that regulation alone could precipitate a socialist dystopia, the merger of the two in Americans’ consciousness has enabled Republicans to call pro-regulation Democrats socialists.
If we are going to take practical steps to address the extraordinary socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation America’s underregulated capitalist market helped produce, Americans must stop associating regulation with socialism. Unfortunately, Republicans are not going to stop utilizing this effective — albeit inaccurate — critique. At least not until Democrats do something to counter this distorted narrative.
Democrats and their supporters can more effectively dispel this myth by clearly differentiating between socialism and regulations. Sanders could distinguish democratic socialism from communism and socialism during speeches. Instead of feeding into the misconception, as Biden did when he stated “I beat the socialist” shortly after winning the Democratic nomination over Sanders, centrist Democrats could support progressive allies by using accurate terminology. The Democratic Party could also initiate an educational campaign about democratic socialism similar to the coordinated 2020 voter outreach push.
Progressive Democratic supporters, and in particular democratic socialists at Harvard, can also play a role. We too are often called radical socialists and delegitimized as such, even though the vast majority of Harvard students in my experience support some variety of regulated capitalism, not socialism.
We are all entitled to advocate for the causes we believe in. Let’s stop letting misguided labels interfere with legitimate discussions about how we are going to move forward. Calling them misinformation is a good first step.
Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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