Debunking criticism of a misunderstood philosophy

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders identifies as a socialist. Illustration: Cole Conley · The Sentry

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders identifies as a socialist.
Illustration: Cole Conley · The Sentry

Socialism briefly explained

As a word, socialism often has a negative connotation. Media pundits and politicians sometimes throw the word around without an understanding of the history and ideology behind it. With the real possibility of Bernie Sanders becoming the next president of the United States, it seems necessary to dispel some of the present myths and criticisms of socialism.

Socialism encompasses a variety of economic and political theories spanning centuries of history. At its core, socialism represents a different understanding about the role of government in society in comparison to capitalism and the free market. Many socialists in the present trace their origin to the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, most well-known for composing The Communist Manifesto in 1848. In that work, they describe several interpretations of socialism in the context of that period. Although antiquated in their Victorian and Eurocentric perspective, this work and many others provide much of the foundation for socialist thought in the 21st century.

Marx and others advocated for a radical change to nearly all aspects of society, especially in the economic and political systems around the world. Democratic socialists offer a less transformational vision by acting within the bounds of a democracy, in which citizens vote for their leaders. Early socialists like Eugene V. Debs, who ran for US President five times from 1900-1920, helped advance progressive ideas by bringing attention to the struggles of the working class 100 years before Bernie Sanders.

Even though Sanders himself argues for a political revolution, the policies he supports match the systems of many other places around the world. Social democracies like those in Scandinavia display how this approach to economics lowers income inequality and even improves the happiness of people living there, and  are consistently at the top of the World Happiness Report by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In contrast, the US lags far behind on the same list at number nineteen, as of the most recent 2019 report.

One of the most common criticisms of socialism relates to the monetary cost of the programs it promotes, such as free healthcare and public education. In other countries, taxes account for the costs of these government programs. Even conservative leaders abroad, like Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, support expanding their public healthcare system, known as the National Health Service.

Given that socialism itself attempts to elevate the quality of life for people in all aspects of society, it seems odd to use the term as an insult. Before and after his presidency, Barack Obama faced the socialism label from certain corners of the media, even though his policies reflected nothing of the sort. Obama still captured the hearts and minds of the American people enough to win two elections. Expanding the increasingly progressive agenda of the Democratic party,   label, building a broad coalition of passionate supporters.

In the United States, socialism would build on the legacy of progressive leaders in the past who worked to establish integral government programs like Social Security. With a better understanding of what the term actually means, hopefully people will no longer be afraid of the possibility of a socialist administration.

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