At least half of the American electorate has a negative view of socialism — even if they don’t entirely understand what it means.
This stands in stark contrast to almost every other developed country in the world. Many of our closest allies maintain large social welfare systems. Some of these systems are in operation right next door.
So why is America so scared of Socialism?
Well, we aren’t.
Just like other countries, Americans love socialism — when we’re not being prosecuted for it.
Although we might not trust each other enough to make it work today.
So let’s go to the past — which is also the future.
Welcome to the year 2000 AD. The future. The United States is a bonafide utopia, complete with personal credit cards, streaming music, online shopping, and socialism. Lots and lots of socialism.
This is the central conceit of Edward Bellamy’s 19th century novel, Looking Backward. Published in 1887, it became the third bestselling book of the time, and only the second American novel to sell a million copies. It also helped jumpstart socialist societies all across the US.
Even though the book describes a United States with a nationalized industrial economy and an exhaustive social welfare system, Bellamy never calls any of it socialism. In fact, the word socialism never appears in the text. By the time of its publication, a series of violent and deadly labor strikes was enough to make the American people wary of anything labeled socialism. So Bellamy was reluctant to promote it in his book — even though that’s exactly what he was doing.
America’s stance on socialism wouldn’t be any more forgiving in the subsequent decades.
After World War I — which many socialists opposed — the federal government cracked down on political dissent — both real and imagined. This was the first Red Scare. Socialists were lumped together with anarchists, Bolsheviks, and communists — all of which were considered terrorist organizations by the US military. Immigrants were seen as harbingers of dangerous socialist ideas. Their communities were targeted and many were deported. Even activists working toward racial equality fell under the federal government’s scrutiny.
Socialism became an ideological bogeyman, used by the government to justify the extraordinary retaliatory measures taken against segments of the US population. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer famously forecasted a socialist uprising on May Day 1920. When his predicted revolution didn’t come to pass, the first Red Scare lost credibility in the eyes of the American public, forcing the federal government to ease up on its crackdown.
In the 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression, there was a resurgence of interest in Bellamy’s novel — as well as socialism itself. President Franklin Roosevelt enacted massive public works programs and created the social security system. The city of Milwaukee even had a series of socialist mayors during this time. In 1945 alone, 100,000 copies of Bellamy’s novel were re-printed.
But America’s brief dalliance with socialism wouldn’t last long.
At the beginning of the 1950s, the specter of communism loomed over the United States and another Red Scare took shape. Thanks to the first Red Scare, Americans already conflated Soviet-style Communism with Socialism. So when Senator Joseph McCarthy began his campaign to root out communists — both real and imagined — anybody espousing socialist ideas became a target too. One could lose their job and their livelihood just for being accused of being a communist sympathizer. While the US populace would come to depend upon the large scale social and economic reforms implemented during the depression and WWII, any further reform would stall out.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the American political arena would see the emergence of another socialist bogeyman — or should I say bogeywoman.
The myth of the Welfare Queen was the idea that poor women were defrauding the welfare system in order to avoid work or buy drugs. President Ronald Reagan successfully campaigned on this stereotype and conservatives used it to vilify and gut existing social programs. Although there was only one documented instance of a real life “welfare queen,” the idea stuck in the American consciousness — indelibly linking socialism with a lazy, parasitic lifestyle and criminal behavior.
When the year 2000 actually came to pass, the United States could hardly be further from the socialist utopia Bellamy had envisioned. And while in recent years, we’ve made a step toward universal healthcare and had an avowed socialist nearly win the democratic nomination for president, actually accomplishing any significant socialist reforms might be harder than ever.
That’s because we don’t trust each other.
Socialism requires a lot of faith in people. After all, it depends on people paying into a collective pool of money — taxes, usually — and using that money to pay for broad social and economic programs. But if you can’t trust people to use the money fairly, then you’ll be less willing to buy into the pool.
Turns out the amount of trust we have in our fellow citizens can be measured.
This is called the Social Trust Index.
In order to have a socialist system as robust as a Scandinavian country like Sweden or Norway, the overall social trust index of a nation must be at 80% or greater. In 2007, a Pew research poll put the Social Trust Index of the United States at 50%. It hasn’t gotten any better in the time since.
So why are Americans so distrustful of one another?
Well, we can blame the rich for that.
Since the late 1970s, the gap between the rich and poor has expanded into an immense gulf. In 2013, the top 10% of families held 76% of the wealth. The top 400 richest Americans — people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — are sitting on more wealth than half of all America. That’s a group of people who couldn’t even fill a 747 passenger jet with more money than 160 million people. This consolidation of wealth into an increasingly smaller set of pockets has led to less social mobility and shocking economic inequality.
Nobody wants to pay taxes — even in a society with a high social trust index. But if the system seems unfair, there’s no incentive for anybody to contribute their fair share.
But social trust is not just necessary for socialism. It’s good for capitalism too.
If you don’t trust people, you’re less likely to make investments or buy someone’s products. As a result, capital — the lifeblood of a free market economy — dries up.
But our trust in people isn’t irrevocably broken. It can be mended.
For instance, we could have everyone look and act the same.
Trust is more easily established and maintained in a homogenous population because everyone shares the same background and culture. This is easy in lily-white Scandinavia. Not so much in a big continent-sized melting pot like the United States. Here cultural uniformity is a practical impossibility — if not an altogether repugnant option.
So we could always count on a catastrophe.
The Great Depression and WWII were a great time for socialist ideas because national crises make surefire trust building exercises. It gives people a common cause to fight for. Everyone shares the same burden. And fixing the problem often requires a collective effort. But waiting around for some disaster to befall us doesn’t make the greatest plan.
So that leaves us with the much more difficult route — actually leveling the playing field a bit.
Instituting marginal taxation or discouraging wealth hoarding and tax evasion could help bridge the divide between the 1% and the 99%. This would get the rich off their private yachts and put us all in the same boat — so to speak. After all, we are much more likely to work together for the common good if we actually believe we share anything in common.
If you have any American money on you, take it out and look at it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a penny or a hundred dollar bill. They all share something in common. Every single piece of United States currency bears the phrase “In God We Trust.”
But that’s not really true.
When it comes to being a fully functional democracy, it’s in one another that we trust. Regardless of whether we are a socialist utopia or a bastion of free enterprise, without our faith in other people, we are the United States in name only.
Edward Bellamy’s socialist depiction of America will probably never be realized. It is a science fiction novel after all. It’s fantasy. But his book might not seem so far-fetched today if more of us were on the same page.
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