We’re All Just A Little Bit Socialist

And the press could point out that it’s no big deal

Forgive the foray into middle school essay writing, but here goes: The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as:

A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.

John McCain and some of his allies have been playing a cute dance these last few days, suggesting that Barack Obama (or his plans, or his general ideological underpinnings) are in some way “socialist.”

Big word that, and one that carries negative associations for many Americans—which, of course, is why McCain is using it. And part of the reason it’s such an effective weapon is that the press has in general avoided enforcing a clear, accurate, non-hyperventalating definition of socialism. That’s why in even in 2008—twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, calling a policy or politician “socialist” is a scare tactic meant to call forth a Holiday in Cambodia.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard Obama talk about nationalizing our means of production or instituting land reform. I have heard him talk about making small revisions to our current system of taxation, the one where the rich pay more taxes than the poor, and the poor get greater benefits than the rich. You could call that socialism, if you like. In the real world, every country’s economic model is a hodgepodge of capitalism and bits of socialism. Yes, Virginia, even the United States, where we have nationalized parks, post offices, and retirement systems.

Still, say “socialism,” and people scream like there’s an inbound Soviet ICBM. Take Chris Matthews’s intro from Monday night’s Hardball:

After spending more than a week making the charge that Barack Obama is close to, is friendly with, or maybe even sympathetic to terrorists, the McCain/Palin campaign is trying to pin another disqualifying tag on him: socialist. The campaign has started using the “S-word” as Sarah Palin did today in Colorado Springs…

Matthews is simply acknowledging the word’s reputation in America. Through heavy abuse from both sides of the Iron Curtain, it’s come to carry a lot of bad baggage. And McCain gets this. McCain doesn’t care about any actual definition of socialism; he’s just reaching back to the Cold War to grab a bludgeon.

The press should play a role in preventing politicians from irresponsibly wielding these kind of rhetorical weapons. For now, they could provide some measured looks at what socialism is and what it is not. They could start by noting that dozens of countries have socialist parties in government. While they come in many strengths and flavors, these parties share at heart the idea that the market does not take care of all human needs, and that governments have a role to play in filling those gaps.

It’s not the press’s role to endorse socialism, capitalism, or any other ideology; nor is it their role to demonize one, either. But destigmatizing political language is a key step towards building a nuanced, productive, grown-up conversation about issues and how we might solve them. And shepherding that discussion ought to be a main job of the press during a campaign season.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.