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We’re All Socialists Now?

December 8, 2010

If you had asked me last week how to completely alienate the American political public, I would’ve told you something like “just call yourself a Marxist anti-freedom communist puppy-hater. Or, in other words, just call yourself a socialist.” But that was last week. This week, I wouldn’t say that, because of something Lawrence O’Donnell, the new MSNBC pundit, did on his show.


He proudly admitted to being socialist. He didn’t beat around the bush, either. He showed a video of himself saying, earlier in the week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “I am not a progressive—I’m not a liberal who’s so afraid of the word that I have to change my name to progressive. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist.” The reason O’Donnell’s statement is so startling isn’t that he’s admitting to being left of center (or even left of left)—he’s a host on MSNBC. We expect as much. His statement is startling because the word “socialist” is a devil term in today’s political sphere, and he used it on himself. He tagged himself with a word that the consensus considers the polar opposite of “freedom” and “capitalism,” terms almost universally accepted as bedrock principles in our American ideology. To be “socialist” is to be against freedom, to be un-American. And it’s really tough to be a politician in the United States if you’re seen as un-American. And yet O’Donnell made me think a little deeper about the word “socialist.”

The word “socialist” has so much political power because it has been commandeered to mean something quite different than its literal, dictionary definition. Its new definition implies, at its core, antagonism to core American values. It is so blatantly in opposition to our American ideology that it has become little more than a cudgel to attack those with whom we disagree. Until, that is, O’Donnell got started with his redefinition.

O’Donnell redefines the word “socialist,” attempting to move it out of opposition with our core American values and into the realm of acceptability. He explains that Social Security and Medicare, programs relied upon and valued by a majority of Americans, are socialistic. With their implementation, O’Donnell continues, America became a mixed economy—no longer capitalist. He makes it clear our society has already embraced quite a few socialistic programs that he isn’t ashamed of supporting:

What I’ve been trying to do by saying it is help people understand what socialism is, and that every taxpayer in this country, every Social Security recipient, every Medicare beneficiary, and everyone who uses the Post Office is participating in successful socialism, practical socialism. Every. Day.

Talk about a change in meaning. No longer is the issue socialism vs. capitalism. According to O’Donnell, the issue is how much socialism and how much capitalism. In other instances, accusations that an individual was a socialist have been rebutted with calls for civility (let’s not demonize each other), logic (actually, candidate X supports capitalism just as much as you do), or humor (let’s have the Socialist candidate for president weigh in on whether candidate Obama is a socialist). These probably worked, at least to some degree, but O’Donnell wants nothing to do with this kind of answer. His is a bold response in defense of the term. He’s careful to point out that he doesn’t support all socialism, just the good kind:

There is good socialism and bad socialism. Socialism that won’t work is ill-conceived, too expensive, not grounded in reality. I will join Glenn Beck in opposition to that kind of socialism. Bad socialism is bad. But not all socialistic notions are bad. We should not allow this country to live in fear of a word. Socialism has contributed mightily to the quality of life in this country, as has capitalism, and both will continue to.

Again, he goes out of his way to prove that the good kind actually exists, that Americans embrace good socialism and shouldn’t be fear the simple word “socialism.” I’m interested to see if this catches on. I’m not sure O’Donnell has the clout, as a liberal commentator, to really change the terms of the debate in this way. But maybe he’s on to something. Maybe if a few more mainstream political gurus jump on the socialist bandwagon, the debate will shift from “Obama is a socialist!” to “we’re all socialists now.”

If you want to know more:

  • I highly recommend watching the entire 7 minutes of O’Donnell’s speech here.
  • The terms “freedom” and “capitalism” are excellent examples of what Michael McGee termed “ideograph” in his 1980 QJS article “The ‘Ideograph’:  a Link between Rhetoric and Ideology”.
  • Lawrence O’Donnell won an Emmy for his work on the political tv series The West Wing. For a remarkably similar redefinition of a term (this time liberal rather than socialist) check out this short clip from the series.
  • Edward Schiappa, in his article “Dissociation in the Arguments of Rhetorical Theory”, invokes Wittgenstein to point out that arguments about “What is X?” (e.g. “what is socialism?”) are difficult to resolve.  This suggests that reclaiming the term will not be easy.

Jeff Swift is a first-year PhD student at North Carolina State University’s program in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media.

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