The term “socialism” seems to be an early front-runner for the top buzzword of the 2020 election season. Democrats and Republicans have been using the word a lot lately, but what does it really mean?
At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, President Donald Trump told the crowd, “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism. They want to replace individual rights with total government domination.”
But Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University specializing in political rhetoric, says the way Trump characterizes socialism is different than its technical definition.
“[It’s] a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole,” Mercieca says.
She says some left-leaning politicians today are reclaiming the word “socialism” by championing things like single-payer health care and increased government regulation – concepts that were considered more mainstream-liberal during the New Deal era over 80 years ago.
“I think they’ve done that strategically because … they knew that they were going to get accused of socialism anyway,” Mercieca says. “I think that they’ve actually tried to reclaim that word as a way of announcing what their agenda is.”
She says an example of that is congressional Democrats’ Green New Deal.
A similar transformation happened with the word “liberal” during Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988. He claimed to be one back when the word had negative connotations, just like “socialist” and “socialism” do today. Mercieca says these contentious terms have had similar trajectories.
“The nation goes through these periods where settled questions become, once again, vibrant and contested,” Mercieca says.
She says political scientists call this a “conjuncture.” It’s a moment in time when an issue that everyone thought was settled resurfaces.
“Questions that you never thought you could even ask are being asked again,” Mercieca says.
Mercieca says some Democrats are embracing the term “socialism,” while others are hesitant to do so, and that’s important for the 2020 presidential race especially because she says Republicans will likely use the term to rally partisans.
“It’ll be interesting to see what the American people think, if they think socialism is bad or good, and if they think that the policies that are being linked to socialism are bad or good,” Mercieca says.
Written by Caroline Covington.