The word “socialism” has become like an inkblot test.
In a strict dictionary sense, it is an ideology in which the means of production and distribution should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. But rarely is that description the one used by United States citizens when discussing socialism.
Rather, perceptions vary widely to include universal health care, a safety net for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens and causes historically championed by the labor movement all the way to the tattered economy in Venezuela where inflation reached 10 million percent, government regulations intruding on personal freedom and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ violent dictatorial rule.
Americans often incorrectly use “socialism” interchangeably with “communism,” which is a society in which all property is publicly owned and workers give “from each according to their ability” and receive “to each according to their needs,” as described by Karl Marx.
The response to the inkblot word “socialism” depends on an individual’s own psychology, environment, political beliefs and understanding of the subject.
“You get a variety of different interpretations based on the knowledge that people have about socialism and communism,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
“Socialism” has become a polarized political buzzword in recent years.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, sought the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020, running as a democratic socialist, which combines a democratic government with socialist economic policies. The debate over what is socialism has been a regular point of contention during this year’s general election between President Donald Trump, a Republican, and Democratic Party nominee former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Americans divide along the lines ideologically, meaning progressives, liberals tend to support aspects of socialism,” Madonna said. “Basically, it’s defined as government runs the economy, as opposed to the free market, setting the rules and the regulations, etcetera.”
Age and politics
The socialism schism often emerges along the lines of political beliefs and age.
A Gallup analysis, released in late 2019, showed that 49% of Millennials and Gen Zers viewed socialism favorably, while 51% held the same opinion about capitalism. Thirty-nine percent of Gen Xers felt positively about socialism with that number dropping to 32% for Baby Boomers and traditionalists.
Overall, the poll found that 39% of Americans had a positive opinion of socialism, while 57% viewed it negatively.
Sanders made strong showings in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries thanks – in large part – to the support of younger voters.
Emma Freeman, a senior from Gettysburg studying political science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, supported Sanders in this year’s primary. “I don’t think he was as radical as most people made him out to be,” Freeman said. “I actually agreed with most of his policies.”
She believes that “putting more power and means in the hands of the workers instead of the big guys on top … would be something else that I think is very important. Minimum wage should be much higher. Workers should earn more for what they’re doing in a way to disperse or lessen the concentration of wealth.”
Meanwhile, to many Republicans “socialism” has long been a pejorative term for liberal policies, including the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislation that expanded Medicaid eligibility, eliminated pre-existing condition restrictions for health insurance coverage and included an individual mandate.
“I think it’s gradually been going toward socialism with the Democrats being in power,” said Gloria Sullivan, a 78-year-old retiree from Windber and member of the Cambria-Somerset Tea Party. “They want to regulate everything that we do, everything we say. I’m just concerned that it’s not good for all the people because everybody has different ideas and different ways to live. And they want to put us all in one little basket and this is how you have to be.”
In contrast, Freeman said, “Socialism is associated with communism, which they really are two very different things. In theory, socialism may lead to communism, but it certainly doesn’t have to, especially if it’s democratic socialism. Our grandparents or parents experienced the Cold War and red scares, and they’re terrified of the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ without truly understanding what it means. Like mentioning how a big important factor of it is giving workers more power. I think most people who are scared of it don’t even really know that aspect of it.”
Jay Deaver, a 36-year-old Navy veteran from Johnstown, who backed Sanders, thinks “that older generations and even some of the current generations – maybe, the one before me, Baby Boomers – either aren’t educated or choose not to educate themselves on a lot of things because it doesn’t fit their narrative of the things that they think should happen in this country.”
To Deaver “socialism is putting every citizen on a level playing field, just making sure everybody is provided for” and “giving everybody a fair shot at life and succeeding.”
He supports progressive policies, such as a $15 minimum wage with health care, addressing climate change, LGBTQIA rights and Black Lives Matter.
Douglas Lengenfelder, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former Cambria County commissioner, compares socialism to a game of Monopoly with modified rules in which instead of receiving $200 for passing “Go” the player with the most assets would need to turn over property and money.
He believes that would demotivate the recipient.
“Pretty soon, an individual sits back and goes, ‘Wow, I don’t have to buy property to get property, I don’t have to save money to get money,’ ” Lengenfelder said. “And, all of a sudden, it’s easier to sit back, and do nothing, and just wait for somebody else to pass go and collect from them.”
Lengenfelder considers socialism to be “a pseudo-religion, grounded in pseudo-science and enforced by political tyranny,” citing Venezuela, a once oil-rich nation that, he said, was crippled during the presidency of Hugo Chávez, a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
“Of every country that I’ve been in – and I’ve been in a bunch, over 55 nations around the world – I’ve never seen what is a purely socialist system be successful,” he said. “What I have seen are the Venezuelas of the world that promise all sorts of wonderful things and then the leaders, unable to deliver, step back and at least make sure the leadership is taken care of in a country.”
That then often leads to the ruler consolidating power, Lengenfelder said.
“You can vote your way into socialism, but I guarantee you will have to fight your way out of it,” he said.