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Bernie breaks socialism stigma

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Bernie may or may not beat Trump, but he sure did something a decade or so ago few would have dreamed possible: He made talk of socialism respectable. Recent polls repeatedly show that a majority of millennials think it’s cool. A respectable number in other polls say they have no qualms about voting for a socialist. And still more say, ‘Hey wait a minute, don’t we already have a lot of what to some smacks of socialism?’ — Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, and tons of government subsidies that run the gamut from agribusiness to corporations to the working and middle class. Also, legions now demand taxing the rich out of their gourd to eradicate gaping wealth inequality.

So, Bernie suddenly doesn’t look and sound so far-fetched when he demands more of these things, topped with an overhaul of the system. Now, the trick is how to convince even more Americans to regard socialism as not a dirty word.

Outside of a relative handful of leftists and Poli-Sci professors and majors, most Americans have no real clue what socialism, democratic or otherwise, is. The word “socialist” is a loaded term that has always touched a raw nerve with many Americans, old and young. The old Cold War image of a socialist for decades drilled home images of Lenin and Stalin, bloody dictators, gulags, totalitarianism and Big Brother Orwellian regimentation. This has been more than enough to put a deathly scare in most Americans. To many, a socialist is pro-union, pro-increased government spending on health and education programs, and pro-civil liberties and especially civil rights.

That’s not socialism remotely by any name. The real head-scratcher is trying to define just what it is. Talk to five self-proclaimed socialists and you’ll get five often wildly varying takes on what socialism is. They’ll be a lot of references to Norway, Denmark and Sweden, none of which are socialist countries in the textbook definition of socialism. That is full government and public ownership, regulation and management of industry, commerce and trade. Almost no one cites Laos, Cuba, the old Soviet Union and Mao’s China as examples of a socialism that’s desirable, and few in America would ever embrace it. But the systems in these countries do and did fit the classic socialist model.

The bigger barrier in trying to sell Bernie’s socialist revolution is America itself, namely its past and present. The enshrined rugged-individualist, frontier, Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches spirit has been repeatedly sold as the reason for America’s spectacular growth and development and status as a world leader. The cause was individual initiative. From practically cradle to grave, Americans are imbued with the laissez-faire notion that the poor aren’t poor because of the hyper concentration of wealth, or worse, any failing of the system, but because of their personal failings.

The mildest criticism of big business and the wealthy ensures a slap on of the socialist tag. The American economic sacred cow is that laissez-faire wealth is tantamount to a divine right of kings, and any attempt to touch it is economic heresy. A big swath of the working class has bought deep into the notion that they are really not workers, but part of the middle class. They bristle at the idea of giving their hard-earned tax dollars as handouts to the poor, especially the minority poor.

Sanders stands this on its head with his crusade against wealth inequality and the unfettered greed of Wall Street and big corporate CEOs. It’s this drumbeat attack that has touched a nerve with a lot of Americans. He made sure of that by smartly resisting every attempt by many within and without the Democratic Party to get him to backpedal from, play down or outright drop any talk of socialism on the presidential campaign trail. He’s gambled this. By proudly tagging himself with the socialist label, he’ll have done a monumental part in the remake of America even if he doesn’t win the White House. In fact, the win is making socialism no longer a dirty word with many. And he’s done that, but for how long is the real question.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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