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Why does the main left-wing party in the United States (the Democratic Party) hate being called "socialist", but in France the main left-wing party proudly calls itself "the Socialist Party"?

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    I'm not aware that the 'left wing' as a whole 'hates' being called 'socialist' in the US...though many would point out that the word is being used incorrectly much of the time when used in the US. – user1530 Nov 18 '14 at 4:01
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    Probably because the word "socialist" has gotten a bad connotation in the states. For example if you hate affordable health care you call it "socialized medicine". – johnny Nov 18 '14 at 8:43
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    There's also the issue that the Democratic Party isn't socialist. It's at best aligned with social democracy, but I'd hardly call it leftwing socialism, especially compared to European socialist parties. – The Forest And The Trees Nov 18 '14 at 8:52
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    Even aside from cultural differences between countries, this question makes it sound like all left wing parties have the same policies. But "left" and "right" aren't doors into two rooms, one with all left wing people and the other with the right wing people. People can be a little bit left/right or a lot left/right, or have left views on one issue but right views on another issue. – nnnnnn Nov 22 '14 at 14:04
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    By the way, in France the Socialist Party is by no means left-wing. – Anixx Nov 26 '14 at 16:50

15 Answers 15

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There are many in the United States who lack a basic understanding of Socialism in even a few of its many forms. The most damning indictment is when a person uses Communism, Nazism, and Socialism as though they are synonyms. It would be lost on them to attempt to explain nuances between Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism.

There are numerous programs in place here in the United States that are clearly Socialist. Most will probably object to something, if only to opine that the program isn't structured properly, but only the most ardent proponents of Objectivism, Minarchism, and Anarcho-capitalism would object to Socialism in all forms.

I've listed but a few programs below.

CDC, FDA, Farm Subsidies, Fire Departments, Infrastructure, Libraries, Medicaid, Medicare, National Weather Service, OSHA, Public Museums, Public Parks, Public Schools, Public Transit, Public Utilities, Public Zoos, Unemployment Insurance, Vaccines

Addendum

Many parties of all political stripes probably could be chided for a lack of clarity in their names. The two predominate parties in the U.S.--the Democratic Party and the Republican Party--specific two components of our system of government, which is a constitutional republic with democratically elected representatives. It isn't very intuitive to one that the Democratic Party is center left and the Republican Party is center right.

On the matter of parties bearing the name socialist, in France and other European democracies, one could observe the inconsistency over the issue of healthcare. 33 out of 34 OECD nations, most of which are in Europe, have some form of universal or single payer healthcare. This is derided as socialist here in the U.S. The Swiss system bears some resemblance to some aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka ObamaCare; however, it is true universal healthcare, unlike ACA here in the U.S.

Mainstream center right parties in European parliaments are in support of their respective universal healthcare systems, but most would eschew the term socialist.

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    Ruined by a failure to even mention federalism (whether by name or not). When you say no one objects to socialism in all forms, you give examples which are primarily local, which is disingenuous considering most opposition is specifically to socialism implemented at a national level. – Ben Voigt Nov 22 '14 at 19:50
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    @BenVoigt most of the programs I cited were federal. Some are locally managed but federally funded with federal guidelines. – Kennah Nov 23 '14 at 3:09
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    Social-democratic programs are not socialist programs. – Wrathbelle May 25 '16 at 23:51
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    Alleges Americans do not understand socialism. Subsequently fails to make a distinction between socialism, social-democracy, welfare (which unemployment INSURANCE isn't even), and simply public offices for specific functions like the Centre for Disease Control. Well... you're right, they don't get it. Since when were zoos the means of production, exactly? – inappropriateCode May 9 '17 at 12:26
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    @inappropriateCode regarding unemployment insurance, for example Germany has a model where you primarily insure against temporary job loss. That gives you 1 year of your wage in case you lose a job. But it also insures you (and everyone else) for a longer term unemployment called Hartz IV, which is welfare state. – antipattern Jun 25 '17 at 23:22
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Because US Democratic party is not left wing, it's just slightly more to the left than extremely right wing Republican party.

This is an important point, one that is worth expanding. The ideology of the Democratic Party is closer to that of European Centre-Right parties like the UK Conservative Party and the German CDU than it is to the European Centre-Left, like the UK Labour Party and the French Parti Socialiste.

In fact, on many issues the UK Conservative Party is to the LEFT of the Democratic Party; think, at random, of gun-control, national health service, and campaign financing.

Others have raised a related hypothetical: with whom would the US parties caucus if they were in the European Parliament? If the Democratic Party linked with the Conservative Party and the CDU in the EPP,where they belong ideologically, then the Republicans would find themselves with the HARD-right nationalsts in the ECR (not the FAR-right extremists in the EFD.) I apologize for the flurry of acronyms; I'm just trying to keep it short.

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    All a matter of perspective, this answer would be improved by comparing what "left" and "right" mean in USA vs Europe without using words such as "extremely". It would be equally correct to point out that European "centrist" and "conservative" parties are barely to the right of extremely left-wing socialist parties in the same countries... and equally unhelpful. – Ben Voigt Nov 22 '14 at 19:54
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    I agree with most of this except that the Republicans would be left alone here in Europe. The Hard right nationalists here do not have a similar sort of agenda as the Republican party has. – Count Iblis Nov 22 '14 at 19:58
  • @CountIblis, Yup the Republicans are super hardcore neo-liberalists, pre-Trump populism (we don't know the complete program so clearly this cycle) basically unacceptable to almost every voter. The Democrats are now so neo-liberal, the Republicans swerved left to grab all the furious voters, so they are becoming more like the European nationalists. The more they do, the more they just might win. Otherwise if they revert to pre 16 form, they will unquestioningly lose, being neo-liberalism with a scowl... vs neo-liberalism with a smile. – J. M. Becker Sep 8 '16 at 19:58
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    @CountIblis You are correct. A problem with both the question and the answer is that "left" and "right" have such different meanings between Europe and America. Even within America the words are not well defined. – Readin Jun 27 '17 at 17:44
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This could be traced back to the Cold War era, when socialism and the USSR was the mortal enemy of the US. Any party nowadays wouldn't want to associate themselves with the old enemy.

Also for most people, 'socialism' strongly recalls in their memory the crimes committed by the various socialist proclaimed regimes around the world.

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    The same countries proclaimed being "Democratic", i.e. th. German Democatric Republic, yet the word Democracy has not taken the same stain. It seems people understand that the "Democracy" was a clear lie, but are not willing to understand the same for the "Socialism". – gerrit Jun 23 '15 at 13:53
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    @gerrit because the German Democatric Republic wasn't democratic but it WAS quite socialist. – Colin Jun 24 '17 at 20:12
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    @gerrit "state capitalist" hahahaha. Socialism was not a lie, eastern block countries were implementing socialism. – user14816 Jun 27 '17 at 6:35
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    @Tlen Not sure what is amusing here. It would be reasonable to argue the means of production in the Soviet Union and other nominally "socialist" states were controlled by the state (through the new ruling class, the nomenklatura), rather than by the workers. Perhaps Yugoslavia came closest to socialism with its worker cooperatives. Would you really argue it is not a lie to say the workers controlled the means of production in the Soviet Union? – gerrit Jun 27 '17 at 10:06
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    Officially workers through communist party did control means of productions. In reality socialism is a big lie and is impossible to implement in practice. – user14816 Jun 27 '17 at 10:19
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Other answers have commented on the US side of the question but I am not sure that France's Parti Socialiste “proudly” calls itself socialist. In fact, the prime minister (who presently comes from this party) floated the idea of changing its name less than a month ago.

In any case, most European centre-left parties have kept their traditional name (“Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands”, “Parti Socialiste”…) independently of any ideological changes or their position on a left-right axis. So in Switzerland or Belgium you have a “parti du travail”, which is a small far-left party and a “party socialiste” which is a mainstream centre-left party. In the Netherlands, it's the opposite, the Partij van de Arbeid (“Labour party”) is a mainstream social-democratic party and the Socialistische Partij is a far-left protest party (it used to be a fringe group but recently had some electoral success).

In fact, in many cases, the changes have been so thorough that the name is basically all that's left. Whether you welcome those changes or not, the name really does not matter so much. In France, the Socialist Party has been in power several times, its platform is decidedly moderate, the party big-whigs are all career politicians coming from the same schools than other politicians. The voters know that and nobody would make the mistake of thinking that this party aims at upsetting the current regime in any way (by contrast, when Mitterrand came to power in 1981, the party had some radical proposals, the Soviet Union still existed and some people had a genuine fear of some sort of revolution).

It also seems that the main dividing line between left and right in France is now based on social issues like gay marriage and not so much on economic policy. Both main parties basically manage the economy in a centrist and EU-agreeable way while trying to please special interests or not to annoy their main constituencies too much. Recently, right-wing politicians seem loath to debate the economy in detail because they don't really have any concrete plan on how to do things differently than the current nominally “socialist” government.

Incidentally, the proposal to change the name was met with a backlash. The left-wing of the party had to swallow a lot but they would not contemplate that.

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    To complement this excellent answer, we could say that, in France, there is also a Communist Party (left-wing reformist, currently in bad condition), an Anti-Capitalist Party (far left-wing, more or less revolutionary, quite small but active in medias), and a party called "Left-wing party" (mostly composed of former member of the left-wing of the Socialist Party). – Taladris Nov 19 '14 at 7:32
  • @Taladris - to summarize this excellent answer AND your comment, one must quote Monty Python. Popular Front of Judea and all that – user4012 Nov 19 '14 at 20:25
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    Socialist movements in France have contributed to establish fundamental workers rights such as unions, paid leaves, pensions etc... thus increasing quality of life for the people. The French are generally proud of this legacy and the modern socialist party has done well to reuse this branding to its advantage, even though it is mostly socialist in name. – Reno Nov 21 '14 at 14:08
  • @Taladris It's rather the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA = Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste): npa2009.org – gouessej Nov 22 '14 at 11:16
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    "-that the name is basically all that's left" ... Clever. Very clever. – inappropriateCode May 9 '17 at 12:31
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In early 20th century America, communism was viewed as a threat to the "American way of life." Socialism was viewed as simply a variation of communism.

At the time, there were Communist and Socialist Parties. Many of the members of these groups were what many Americans viewed as undesirables (i.e. immigrants, Jews and the poor). Many Americans began equating Socialism (in it's many forms) with Undesirables. A good example is the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Two Italian immigrants accused of being members of a group who robbed the pay role of a shoe factory and killed several guards. Even though the case offered no evidence that they were involved and the defense had witnesses that they were far removed from the crime scene at the time they were both convicted simply because they were members of the American Socialist Party and handed out flyers.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacco_and_Vanzetti

This anti-socialist propaganda came to a head during the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Although the hearings were directed against the American Communist Party, Americans tended to group all the differing ideologies into a generality. To be socialist/communist became equivalent to being "anti-American."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army%E2%80%93McCarthy_hearings

Today, if a politician mentions the word Socialism in a positive light, they run a high risk of losing their next election or being thrown out of office.

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    Glenn's book Dreamers & Deceivers covers this story. A rare book collector bought a lot that contained a letters from Upton Sinclair who had conversations with Sacco & Vanzetti's attorney, "They were guilty." – user1873 Nov 19 '14 at 6:57
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    @user1873 - Glenn Beck? If that's the best source you can find.... – Obie 2.0 Feb 12 at 8:12
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While perhaps diminished largely in practice since the 1930s, the notion of individual freedom has played an enormous role in the American psyche ever since the American Revolution. This tradition in American history can not be easily overstated. Anything that they view as autocratic in nature will immediately be met with suspicion by most Americans. Since socialism necessarily involves less personal freedom, it is immediately met with distrust. This distrust for socialism increased dramatically after WWII as the U.S. entered the Cold War against Communism in general and fought Communism in actual wars in Korea and Vietnam. Thus, the word 'socialism' gets associated with two things that are viewed very negatively in the U.S.: lack of individual freedom and Communism.

  • In a roundabout way, this is a pretty good answer: because Americans confuse Socialism and Communism. – user1530 Dec 18 '14 at 3:42
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    Some do. Others know the difference but associate them anyway, since socialism is an integral part of Communism. – reirab Dec 18 '14 at 6:38
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    But anyone that knows the latter should understand the association is distant enough not to confuse the two. I don't think those folks are as big of an issue as the former (those that don't understand the difference) – user1530 Dec 18 '14 at 7:38
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    "and fought Communism in actual wars in Korea and Vietnam" Last I recall, America's problem in Vietnam was to mistake nationalism for communism. A mistake which it often made, and is often repeated, but is no less of a mistake. – inappropriateCode May 9 '17 at 12:45
  • @Reirab and some deliberately associate them because it suits their purposes to pretend socialism and communism are identical, because nothing riles up their back base so well as implying that the socialist commie democrats are coming for their paychecks and guns... – Shadur Feb 23 at 22:54
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Very simple: socialism suffers from an advertising deficiency that it does not have in France. Years of concentrated Conservative smear tactics have poisoned the word socialism in America, even at a time when the general ideas of socialism are gaining more and more traction.

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    The term socialism means so many different things depending on who you ask. North Korea and Cuba are not socialist countries. Venezuela honestly aspires to be, imo, but it fails miserably at it and ends up being the same boring brand of autocratic dictatorship you have in Cuba and North Korea. – Nate Vomocil Nov 23 '14 at 7:22
  • The Democratic Party is a left wing organisation that was opposed to socialism entirely on it's own for reasons that had little to do with "conservative smear tactics." LBJ and JFK were not conservatives but still opposed various forms of socialism, even to the point of waging a land war in Vietnam – Joe Feb 22 at 15:22
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The word "socialism" has a negative connotation in the U.S., whereas it does not (or to a much lesser extent) in France. Even though they are quite different concepts, socialism invokes a lot of negative feelings from the Cold War just because of the similarity in pronunciation.

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    I don't think the association has anything to do with their pronunciation. I think it's much more due to the fact that they are related concepts. Specifically, socialism is an integral part of communism. Communism is the most extreme example of socialism that has been implemented on a large scale. – reirab Dec 18 '14 at 6:48
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Because the Democratic Party is still in denial about being a left-wing party.

At its peaks (in the 1930s and mid-1960s), the Democratic Party was a majority party -- and its core was the established political order of the South. At the same times that FDR was implementing the "New Deal" and LBJ was proposing the "Great Society", the Democratic Party was still a party of traditional values (including the flag, motherhood, and apple pie).

Today, there is a major class difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. But the class divide is about attitudes toward marriage and "affordable family formation", rather than income sources.

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    What exactly are "traditional values", particularly the cliche about "the flag, motherhood, and apple pie." Is there any party anywhere objecting to any of these? Objecting to motherhood is objecting to basic biology, and one might as well come out against science generally. – Kennah Nov 22 '14 at 1:04
  • @Kennah -- Does any party object to "the flag, motherhood, and apple pie"? The film The American President defended flag-burning; its director is an influential Hollywood Democrat (freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1167242/posts). Since 1973, the Democratic Party has increasingly unanimously defended abortion-on-demand up until birth; many Americans do not consider this to be a pro-motherhood position. For a generation, the U.S. government has campaigned against saturated fat; many apple pie recipes are high in saturated fat. – Jasper Nov 22 '14 at 2:25
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    If you stretch credulity any further, it will rip. – Kennah Nov 22 '14 at 3:52
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American public opinion has different focus than French. In France so called 'French Revolutions' is still being celebrated, even though number of atrocities were committed, including the first modern genocide (war in Vandee). French were always looking at the crimes committed by socialists in Eastern Europe from Sartre'a perspective. According to him, all crimes were justified, because socialists were fighting for a better world.

It seems that people in Europe are not able to associate the failures of India and China economies prior to 1990s with their socialists politics. They would even deny that socialists ever ruled India (vide Nehruvian socialism).

In America socialism is more closely associated with its true meaning (means of production owned or control by the whole society), while in Europe it is associated with social security.

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    "It seems that the people of Europe are not able to associate the failures of completely different countries with completely different policies with their own policies". – user11249 Jun 27 '17 at 6:22
  • Nehru was attracted by Fabianism of George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Web. Attending the lectures of John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell oin Cambridge. In 1936 Nehru said "I am convinced that the only key to the solution of the world’s problems and of India’s problems lies in socialism". India is a poor country because of socialism and people in Europe don't understand it. – user14816 Jun 27 '17 at 6:29
  • So someone once attended a lecture therefore conclusions? Seems awfully tenuous to me. – user11249 Jun 27 '17 at 6:40
  • Nehru was implementing Fabianism in India. He was influence by socialists, he said that the socialism was the solution for India. He was a head of socialist party. "I know nothing about history of India or Nehru, but he was not a socialist" - it is your approach. It proofs the point I was making in the answer. People in Europe don't realize that socialism was a failure everywhere. India was always a great civilization, for the most of the history on pair with Europe. Indians in USA are the highest earning minority group. They are not inferior, socialism is. – user14816 Jun 27 '17 at 6:51
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I will keep it short since most people answered the semantics.

Just because they are both considered "left-wing" parties, doesn't mean they aren't different. By assuming they both would be the same, would be to assume that both are the same in every way. Even by saying left/right wing would indicate that there are only 2 (main) parties and must think a certain way.

It's just a mix of cultures, histories, and stigma.

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The US Democrat Party certainly is a socialist party which believes in big government, centralized power and an expanded welfare state. It began moving to the left around the middle '60's and these days is influenced by many radical leftist organisations (Soros, MoveOn, Media Matters, Acorn, Communist Party USA, ACLU, Feminist movement, Greens....etc).

However it doesn't like being called a socialist party because Americans have traditionally seen the US as a center right nation. Therefore the Democrats like to pretend that they are moderates while claiming to stand for middle class and working class Americans. Europeans on the other hand have historically embraced socialism more readily than Americans therefore the center-left parties in Europe have no problem using the 'socialist tag'.

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    The 1960s were when the Democratic party began moving socially left. They were economically left long before that. FDR was probably the most economically left President in all of U.S. history. And, of course, when I say "economically left," I mean the modern meaning of economic liberalism (i.e. promoting expanded socialism,) not classical economic liberalism, which is pretty much the exact opposite (i.e. laissez-faire capitalism.) – reirab Nov 25 '14 at 0:46
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Because the name does not matter. In Cyprus and in most of Europe the socialist, communist and general "left" parties are only using the name Socialists to differentiate themselves for voters. Their views as a party have nothing to do with economic policy of a socialist anymore because their main purpose and mindset is greed (just like all human beings that get sucked in the system of politics). We have left parties, right parties and center parties and they are all the same, 90% similar views about economic policy (which in theory should be one of their most basic differences) and everything else is the same.

So more or less the fact that French or any other country "left parties" like to be called socialists has nothing to do with them being socialists but more to do with wanting to sound like socialists.

In the US the terms communist, nazist and socialist are considered synonyms (not to each other but) to the terms dictator and enemy of the country) . That's how most Americans view it. So if a party would be called one of those three then automatically they would lose their vote count because of some people's understanding, while in Europe using those terms might increase your votes.

I mean if you think about it, Hitler's political party was socialist in the name. I mean by Nazi name it actually meant National Socialist German Workers' Party. But can you imagine a socialist and a Nazi agreeing on anything?

  • While 'Communist,' 'Socialist,' and 'Nazi' do have a (largely deserved) bad reputation in the U.S., most people in the U.S. certainly do not consider them to be synonymous, particularly in the case of Nazism. All three do (deservedly) carry the notion of promoting less freedom than Americans have traditionally valued, but that's about all that most Americans would say that Communism and Nazism have in common. Neither is viewed favorably, but that doesn't mean they're equated. – reirab Nov 20 '14 at 17:03
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    I said synonyms to the terms dictator and enemy of the country, not synonyms in every aspect they enclose – John Demetriou Nov 20 '14 at 18:22
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I think it was Oscar Wilde that said ‘We have everything in common with Americans except language.’ So perhaps it’s not surprising that the terms mean very different things in Europe and in the US, given their vastly different experiences.

Socialism in the UK, at least in today’s UK after a generation of neo-liberalism is seen as eccentric rather than dangerous or respectable. It was once a dangerous idea, like all new ideas are. But it was also respectable because many had seen the inequities of capitalism, in what was the crucible of capitalism.

Chomsky points out in his books that the US public, by and large, are largely to the left of the elites. This he said explained the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders in the presidential race a couple of years ago. It simply, that with the media being in the hands of the elites, that these views don’t get a proper hearing. A people need to hear itself speaking to learn what it is that they truly thinks.

The question then becomes - why is the word Socialism such a dirty word for the elites? Surely this explains itself: the USA was founded as a business, and though it is said to be a country without an aristocracy, I would beg to differ. It is a country with an aristocracy, an aristocracy of enormous wealth, power, privilege and prestige - and mostly white. The USA is, in essence, an oligarchy (which helps explains Chomskys observation on what he calls their Propaganda Model). Moreover, one should not forget the Cold War when the USA faced off USSR for forty years and in that elemental opposition, socialism was put into opposition with the freedom, democracy and the free-market. It’s no surprise then, that the word socialism became a dirty word amongst the USA elites.

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The Democratic Party generally does not like to be described as socialist because they do not generally favor state ownership of the means of production.

Until recently, the term "socialist" in the United States was understood to typically be applied to individuals or groups whose stated goals or beliefs included state ownership of the means of production. Examples of such groups would include Communist parties that ran various states comprising the Soviet Union and associated second-world countries. The Democratic Party was often opposed to such political movements, especially during the earlier parts of the Cold War.

Today in America, the term "socialist" is poorly understood and has multiple meanings associated with it, in part because individuals on the right and the left use it to mean things other than state ownership of the means of production. It is increasingly being used to refer to the public provision of goods or services. The public provision of goods and services is part of what all governments do, and does not require or imply public ownership of the means of production.

The Democratic Party is generally in favor of expanding the public provision of goods and services. It is not generally in favor of state ownership of the means of production.

protected by yannis Nov 23 '14 at 1:13

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