Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — “socialists?” Illogical insult to make American voters trust them less? That probably works — but it’s dishonest.
Grand Old Party Speaker Newt Gingrich paved the way for this, recommending calling your opponent incendiary names in the 1990 pamphlet “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control.” A label like “socialist” can, but usually doesn’t, enlighten.
Words can mean different things. Henri de Saint-Simon, a founder of “Christian Socialism” (not “atheist socialism”), first used socialism in 1825 to mean increased use of resources for the common social good. Loosely, “more role for governments.” And less control over wealth and property by individuals. Loosely, “less freedom.”
By this vague definition, any government thing, from public schools or libraries to roads, can be considered “socialistic” — a law that you cannot drive 80 mph by a school deprives you of freedom; taxes to pay for interstate highways take away freedom to spend those dollars yourself.
Dating back to Karl Marx’s use of socialism in the 1840s, the word has sometimes meant absolute rejection of capitalism, something like communism and central control of all things economic. Other times, the word has meant no more than some serious restraints on capitalism and more regulation of business.
No serious American, of any political stripe, thinks there should be no role at all for governments. But there’s always been plenty of disagreement about where to put the limits. Some think it’s desirable to have strong social safety nets, health care for everyone, help for families via extended child care or generous parental leave policies, policies that make it easier for workers to organize unions and basic common responsibility for infrastructure.
Supporting such things is sometimes called, “social democratic” or “democratic socialism.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt was called a socialist based on his general ideas of turning to government to make things better. The Nordic nations, Sweden, Denmark, etc., as well as to a less pronounced degree, Canada, United Kingdom, France and Germany, also use more government for the common good than the United States does.
A few current American Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, apply the label democratic socialist to themselves, but FDR never did. Biden and Harris never have. And Sweden and the rest have strong capitalistic economies and don’t use the socialist label.
Venezuela can reasonably be called socialist in the completely undemocratic sense, but in fact, it has little in common with social democratic policies or any American politicians.
Few Americans of any philosophy want to have government be in charge of everything economic.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents claimed that if Jefferson were elected he’d send federal troops to citizens’ houses and confiscate Bibles. Whether anyone voted based on such nonsense is hard to know — but weaponizing political discourse is not new, however much “credit” Gingrich wants for coarsening things of late. Despite history, name-calling is destructive.
Does it make sense to call Biden/Harris or other current Democrats socialists? Not if you think labels should be accurate. Not if you want to enlighten rather than merely to insult.