During the third 2020 Democratic presidential debate, anchor Jorge Ramos outlined the situation in Venezuela and posed the following question to then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders: “What are the main differences between your kind of socialism and the one being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua?” The comparison being drawn in the question was clearly unreasonable — Maduro’s ruthless dictatorship is obviously separate from the types of policies supported by Sanders. The senator made this point in response, stating, “To equate what goes on in Venezuela to what I believe is extremely unfair … I agree with what goes on in Canada and in Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right.”
But while comparing Sanders’ beliefs to those of the most extreme socialist dictatorships may not be in good faith, the senator to some degree invited these comparisons by adopting the moniker of a democratic socialist. Indeed, many Capitol Hill progressives have embraced the term, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the “the Squad.” Core to the platform espoused by contemporary American democratic socialists are policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal that aim to expand government social services.
Socialist? Not Quite
There’s only one problem: the policies of contemporary American democratic socialists aren’t really socialist at all. Given that the word is constantly being manipulated and reinterpreted, there is no one true definition of socialism. But one of the central tenets of a purer form of socialism revolves around workers seizing the means of production from corporations. In socialist states, this process often involves nationalizing and socializing industries. While many of the proposed democratic socialist policies in the United States would certainly lead to increased influence of the government in the economy and regulation of industry, few directly involve workers gaining control of the economy. Political ideology operates on a spectrum, so implementing the modern democratic socialist agenda would likely bring the country closer to a socialist society, but labelling these policies as socialist does not seem entirely accurate.
Progressives have argued that democratic socialism is distinct from a more traditional understanding of socialism. However, wariness of socialism has become so ingrained in the American political psyche that the term is politically toxic — even if it’s being rebranded. Indeed, according to opinion polling from Gallup, only 39% of Americans have a positive view of socialism whereas 57% have a negative view. This general disapproval of socialism has remained fairly steady across the past decade, despite the fact that support for greater government intervention in the economy has increased substantially.
In a 2018 interview, Ocasio-Cortez insisted that her view of democratic socialism was different from “this kind of McCarthyism Red Scare of a past era.” But it’s exactly this troubled history of socialism in the U.S. that makes use of the term so problematic. Compounding matters is the fact that much of modern conservative rhetoric is built on framing Democrats as “radical liberals,” who want to fundamentally change America whether by attacking “Western culture” or by ushering in a new socialist world order. Socialism is one of the largest boogeymen of Republican politicians and political commentators’ rotation of fear-mongering targets. Keeping that word in the news only helps fuel the Republican culture war machine and doom the prospects of progressive policies in Congress.
Even if the definition of socialism is broad enough to encapsulate modern “democratic socialism,” why use a word with such tangled historical connotations to define your political ideology? Using the phrase “democratic socialism” evokes a backward-looking politics, rather than emphasizing the innovative ideas that comprise the modern progressive agenda.
Unfortunately, progressives’ branding problems reach beyond how they define their own ideology. Specific policies have also been weakened by questionable rhetoric. “Defund the police” is a particularly good example of a promising policy derailed by its own marketing. The slogan generally refers to the diversion of certain police resources to other social agencies so that they can deal with responsibilities that previously belonged to the police. For example, the duty of responding to drug overdose calls could be transferred from the police department to public health services. Technically, police budgets would be defunded, but the main purpose of the policy is moreso to redirect funds and responsibilities in order to further specialize public safety interventions. By using the slogan “defund the police,” proponents of the policy effectively straw-man their own argument, emphasizing the least important part of the policy.
Worse still, this slogan provided content on a silver platter for the likes of Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative politicians. With progressives saying they wanted to defund law enforcement, Republicans barely needed to spin the narrative.
And the polling results were predictable. Polls from Reuters/Ipsos and The Detroit News found that a written description of what “defund the police” is supposed to stand for outpolled the slogan itself by over 70 percentage points. In a focus group made up of undecided voters who eventually voted Trump in 2020, only one participant supported defunding the police. Meanwhile, 70% of the group said they would support “reducing police funding and reallocating it to social services and other agencies to reduce police presence in community conflict” — the very goal of the “defund the police” movement. While the policy may not actually be too controversial, the slogan has seemingly doomed the chances of its legislative success. “Reallocate funds from the police to social services” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but at least it doesn’t misconstrue the central premise of the policy.
Now, this isn’t saying progressives shouldn’t be honest and confident in their language out of fear for conservative backlash. Rather, the problem is that progressives are actively misrepresenting their own views in the process of sloganeering.
Note as well that simple marketing changes won’t inoculate progressives to conservative attacks. Fox News opinion pundits will still call progressives “socialists” to drive their culture war and accuse Democrats of weakening “law and order.” Still, elections are won on the margins, and misrepresenting one’s own stance in a way that feeds opposition content is just an unnecessary, self-defeating move from progressives.
Pragmatic Rhetoric for Pragmatic Policies
An advocacy group that supported Bernie Sanders in 2020 recently rebranded into “pragmatic progressives,” supporting the more moderate Biden agenda instead of demanding policies like Medicare for All. Compromising on policies is likely a necessary step for progressives, especially given the slim margins in the House and Senate. But a lot of progressives’ ability to be politically efficacious comes down to how they present their agenda. As progressives sit on the edge of — and constantly work to redefine — what is mainstream, they will naturally be the subject of heavy criticism. The only way to overcome this criticism is for their policies to speak for themselves, to not get bogged down in rhetoric that is ideological or that overshadows the content of the policies.
If you want dependable health care, you need Medicare for All. If you want sustainable jobs, you need the Green New Deal. If you want safe streets and less police brutality, you need comprehensive police reform. That’s the progressive agenda.
Image by Joshua Sukoff is licensed under the Unsplash License.