I get it. Socialism is a curse word in America. Something used to refer to the opposite of “America.” Call a politician or person a Socialist, and you’re pretty much ending any rational debate right there. On the news the other day, I heard a person dismissing Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton as Socialists, with the clear expectation that by doing so, he was proving why they shouldn’t be viable candidates for president.
Today’s post isn’t here to discuss that. For the purposes of this piece, I don’t care if Hilary or Bernie are as red as they get. What I do care about is people using a term and not really understanding what it is they’re saying.
Maybe some of this is on my part. I come at this whole “Socialism” thing from a slightly different angle. (Looking over my past blog posts, I see I’ve really only discussed this in passing twice: in a discussion about health care, and one critiquing conservative politics. So I guess it’s high time I dealt with it head on, especially in light of all this name calling happening on the political stage at the moment.) For one thing, I lived in former East Germany for two years. For another, Denisa was raised in Socialist Czechoslovakia.* So we’ve had plenty of occasions to talk about politics and how things were run under that former regime.
*Sidenote. Let’s get the Socialist vs. Communist word choice debate out of the way right off. In my experience, “Communist” is what Americans called places that lined up with the Soviet Union. Those countries called themselves “Socialist.” They’re both different ways of referring to the same thing, for the most part, though some people like to split hairs over it. In today’s American politics, calling someone a Communist seems like too much, so they call people Socialist instead. It’s semantics. Socialist is a codeword for Communist. I’m going to use them fairly interchangeably.
What I mean to say is, while I personally never lived under a Socialist/Communist government, I’ve probably got a fair bit more experience with it than most people in America. Not everyone, by any means, but most? Sure.
And one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had in my life happened to me in my first month or so of living in East Germany. This was in 1997, so Communism had been gone for about seven years. Long enough for people to start to get used to the new way of running things, but not long enough that it was a distant memory for anyone.
I was raised about as American as you can get. Upper middle class lifestyle. Mormon. Yay Capitalism! And I had lived my whole life using Rocky IV as my main way of thinking about Communism or Socialism. Whatever the political question might be, the answer was easy: USSR bad. America good. End of debate.
So when I got over to East Germany and started talking to people on the street who had lived in Communism for decades, imagine my shock when some of them told me that they missed it.
They missed it!?!
How insane were these people? They missed not having televisions or cars? They missed being told what to do all the time? They missed living with crummy electronics? They missed living under an oppressive regime?
No. They didn’t miss those things, but those things were the only things I’d ever been taught about what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. As far as I knew, every single person who lived like that had only one real dream: to be free. To live like we lived in America. Because America was good and the USSR was bad. Everybody knew that!
But the fact is, life wasn’t nonstop hell under Communism. There were many things to like about it. Job security was a big one. Controlled prices of food. Less active crime. Better housing for the poor. Think about this one for a moment: I was talking to Denisa the other night about this, and she said that growing up, she never once saw anyone living in some of the conditions the poor in Maine live in. Houses with holes in the roof and terrible insulation and danger of freezing? Just didn’t happen. Unthinkable.
Again, I’m not saying everyone loved everything back then. But it wasn’t 100% bad. Not even close. Anyone who claims differently is using propaganda to promote their own world view.
In my discussions with Denisa and her family and my experiences in East Germany, what was the root of the problem behind the Iron Curtain? The same root that we have in our Capitalist society: people and power. The more power some people get, the more they try to abuse that power for personal gain. If someone can get away with something, they’ll often try to do just that, and who cares about the other consequences, as long as they aren’t ones they have to deal with.
Capitalism has plenty of problems, folks. Oodles. Some of them are different than the ones Socialism caused. Some of them are the same. But people are people, regardless of their politics. People learn the system, and then they game the system for their own personal benefit.
But I digress. These days, Republicans like to brand Democrats as “Socialist.” And when they do it, it’s clear what they’re trying to do: to tie those people back to that “America good. USSR bad” mentality. To label these people as unAmerican. To suggest they’re trying to undermine the very nature of our society. To say that if those people are elected, the next thing you know, we’ll all be living under a totalitarian regime, hating our lives. That’s the message.
The reality is anything but. America is miles away from the sort of system East Germany or Czechoslovakia had. You’d have to rewrite the Constitution itself and change a million details from the top to the bottom of government. This name calling doesn’t get anything accomplished. It’s political games, and it’s more than petty. It’s dishonest. (Ironically, the person whose politics I see matches up with the political goals and rhetoric of Socialist/Communist regimes is none other than Donald Trump. Sometimes the person calling names the loudest is the person you should be most worried about . . .)
I realize this post isn’t going to change any minds. But I didn’t feel like I could stay mute on the matter anymore, either. Instead of trying to label people with broad strokes, I wish we could look at what people are actually espousing. Democrats definitely have stark differences compared to Republicans. But “Socialist” in the old Soviet-style?
Give me a break.