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Are Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez redefining socialism in the U.S.?
Polls show that more Americans today define socialism as an ideology of "equality" than one espousing government control of the economy.
- Socialism is shaping up to be 2020's hot-button issue.
- Recent polls show that Republicans and Democrats hold very different definitions of what socialism is and those definitions have changed dramatically over time.
- Politicians will naturally use the definition that speaks to their bases, but lacking an understanding of the opposing side's viewpoint will further partisan divide.
Socialism is shaping up to be 2020's hot-button issue. Proclaimed socialists won big in 2018, notably congresspersons Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar in New York. Senator Bernie Sanders is again running for president on a democratic socialist platform. And a groundswell of support has raised membership in the Democratic Socialists of America from 7,000 to 50,000 in just two years.
In response, President Trump appears to be making anti-socialist sentiment the keystone to his 2020 campaign. As he said in his State of the Union Address:
Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence –- not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.
The argument that will drown your social media is already taking shape: Will Americans allow the government takeover of the private sector or will it maintain the laissez-faire capitalism that was the country's bedrock? (Yes, that's a false choice, but we're talking the internet during an approaching election year. Not reasonable choices.)
But as any philosophy teacher will tell you, if people are going to argue, they need to define their terms or run the risk of talking past each other. As a recent Gallup poll has shown, to the surprise of no one, Americans have not been listening to their philosophy teachers with respect to this particular term.
The terms they are a changin'
Socialism strangles prosperity in this 1909 propaganda poster. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Last year, Gallup asked a random sample of Americans their understanding of the term "socialism." Only 17 percent of respondents defined it as government ownership or control of businesses and the means of production. While this is the classic definition of the term, it was not the number one answer. It wasn't even the second largest response — which was "no opinion," an answer that suggests its own commentary.
Instead, the number one response, shared by nearly a quarter of those surveyed, defined the term as meaning equality and equal rights for all.
This is in stark contrast to 1949, when Gallup first polled Americans on the matter. At the start of the Cold War, a third of Americans connected the term with government ownership of business and production, while just 12 percent argued it meant equality.
For a larger portion of the population, socialism equates to equality, but what then does "equality" mean? That depended greatly on the individual wielding the term. According to the report's authors, "The broad group of responses defining socialism as dealing with "equality" are quite varied -- ranging from views that socialism means controls on incomes and wealth, to a more general conception of equality of opportunity, or equal status as citizens."
Gallup then broke down the numbers along partisan lines. An equal percentage of Republicans viewed socialism as keeping with the Cold War standard as they did with equality (23 percent each). Yet, Democrats favor the equality definition by twice as much (26 percent compared to 13).
And Democrats and Republicans aren't just split on socialism definitionally. They are also split emotionally.
According to another Gallup poll, Democrats more-or-less held a positive view of both socialism and capitalism. Then Donald Trump was elected, and socialism gained a slight yet distinctive edge. But Republicans have overwhelming favored capitalism since at least 2010 (when Gallup began collecting this data set). In 2018, only 16 percent viewed the term with bread-and-rose-colored glasses.
It's worth noting that young voters have a much more favorable view of socialism than their older peers, especially those whose definition and emotional disposition would have ossified during the Cold War, when the term entered our cultural lexicon in force.
Bernie Sanders democratic socialist?
Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign didn't make him President of the United States, but it did return socialism to the fore of American political discourse. But which version of "socialism" is the question. (Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr)
A self-described democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders may be more responsible for the term's resuscitation in American discourse than any other political figure and its recent definitional shift.
Sander's socialism is based squarely on New Deal politics and the Nordic Model. He supports a market economy alongside heavier taxation to support wider, sturdier public provisions. He specifically points to social services like education, childcare, and healthcare as rights in need of government protections and overreaching influence.
"I think that when we look at a modern, democratic, civilized society, you're looking at economic rights in addition to political freedoms," Sanders told MSNBC. "I happen to believe that in the year 2019, with all of the wealth around us, we can create an economy which guarantees health care to all people as a human right, which guarantees education as a right. Economic rights as human rights."
Sanders does a decent job of defining his terms (for a politician, that is); however, his definition of "democratic socialist" does stand in opposition to its standard usage. Democratic socialism calls for a society in which the government owns the means of production and centrally plans the economy. It is classic socialism housed within a democratic framework.
What Sanders advocates for is traditionally labelled "social democracy," a mixed economy system in which a capitalist market that works with a much larger, more robust social safety net and social risk sharing. (It's all in the adjective.)
For Sanders, New Deal substance may be more important than any label. Fair enough. However, both the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think tank, and Jacobin, a democratic socialist magazine, have made the distinction between "social democracy" and "democratic socialism" part of their platforms. As such, it may be a distinction we'll want to keep around — not only to offer much needed clarity to American political discourse but also so these two organizations can finally agree on something.
Muddying the political waters
President Donald Trump during his 2019 State of the Union address, in which he denounced calls to adopt "socialism" in the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Sanders may have brought socialism back into the political fore, but as we saw with Gallup's poll, it has expanded beyond both its original definition and his New Deal outlook. For many it has become synonymous with equality, and we can see in the rhetoric of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez's democratic socialism is a bit of a moving target, and she admits the term houses varying definitions. Sometimes, she identifies it with the Nordic Model. Other times she promotes it as a type of economic democracy. Still other times, it's incredibly broad:
Capitalism, to me, is an ideology of capital. The most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the accumulation of money above all else, and we seek it at any human and environmental cost… But when we talk about ideas for example like democratic socialism, it means putting democracy and society first, instead of capital first.
For the love of capital is the root of all evil. She goes on to say that socialism shouldn't be the fear that government will take over our businesses. It is a bid to equalize the playing field to prevent corporations from taking over our government — suggesting that her definition really falls in line with the equality response in the Gallup poll.
In opposition to Ocasio-Cortez, we have President Trump's use of the socialism. Recently, Trump has tied the word strongly to Venezuela's mismanaged economy. In this way he attacks Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez's view, but ignores the social democracies they draw inspiration from. You know, the countries that haven't mismanage their economies with squandered oil money and a tinpot dictator.
Elsewhere, he seems to be stoking those old Cold War embers by conflating socialism and communism.
"Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay," Trump told the United Nations General Assembly. "Socialism's thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone."
In a report discussing the misery and oppression of socialism, Trump's economic advisers clump under the same definitional umbrella the failed mixed economy of Venezuela today with past communist economies like those of the USSR and Maoist China. When discussing the Nordic countries, however, the report argues that they "differ significantly from what economists have in mind when they think of socialism."
So, Trump's use of the word not only hearkens back to the classical definition but also sets aside any post-1949 renovations.
The way of words
Much to the exasperation of sticklers and pedants everywhere, words change meaning. It's a natural, unavoidable part of our language, and socialism is a word undergoing such an evolution. Of course, we've been here before.
As linguist John McWhorter notes: "[I]deological positions are mostly fixed but the labels that are affixed to them are subject to change. People can make up a new word, or use an old one in a new way, at any time. However, the things that these words describe often change more slowly, and lend a new word their overtones despite hopes that a new coinage could avoid or transform them."
That quote comes from an article McWhorter wrote for the Atlantic, in which he surveyed the shifting definition of the political label neoliberalism, originally an attempt to separate then middle-of-the-road conservatives from the laissez-faire capitalist liberals of the day. Ironically, neoliberalism is now associated with far-right conservatism while the left adorns the label of liberal.
Socialism is undergoing a similar change today, moving toward polysemy along party lines. For Republicans, the term holds the taint of Cold War animosity and has become a shorthand pejorative. For Democrats, the term is becoming synonymous with a system that endorses fuller equal rights, which can be the Nordic Model, classic socialism, or no specific system at all. It depends on the individual thinker.
Come 2020, whenever we hear a politician speak, we should consider whether they are clearly defining the term, distinguishing between its many variables, or simply using socialism as a political Rorschach test. When we have a discussion online, we need consider whether the "socialism" they use is the same we have in our personal lexicon.
Otherwise, we may find ourselves arguing fiercely over what is ultimately a shared viewpoint.
Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.
- If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
- Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
- In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
An MIT astronomer famously explained why aliens haven't contacted us yet.
A study finds people are more influenced by what the other party says than their own. What gives?
- A new study has found evidence suggesting that conservative climate skepticism is driven by reactions to liberal support for science.
- This was determined both by comparing polling data to records of cues given by leaders, and through a survey.
- The findings could lead to new methods of influencing public opinion.
Mind the cues<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="CabkeAzx" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="169377c88f392a86f6c42180b74820a5"> <div id="botr_CabkeAzx_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/CabkeAzx-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The gulf in accepting the science behind climate change also exists among party elites. It is well known to any American who is attentive to the news, as party leaders are often more than willing to discuss their take to journalists.</p><p>Using polling data going back to the 1980s, the researchers were able to create a chart showing the aggregate amount of climate skepticism among the general population. A similar diagram showing the Republicans' skepticism dating back to 2001 was sourced from a previous, similar study. It was shown to be highly correlated with the one produced for this study.</p><p>These charts were compared with media content from prominent newspapers that included implicit or explicit stances on climate change by significant political figures. These thousands of articles were classified by using key terms and which major political figures were quoted or referenced. The researchers compared the number of cues over time to measured skepticism and looked for "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granger_causality" target="_blank">Granger causality</a>," the tendency for one variable to predict the future value of another variable.</p><p>The model shows evidence of both in and out-group cue effects, though the repulsion to out-group cues was much more evident. A significant increase in Democratic cues in favor of climate science was followed by a rise in skepticism among Republican voters. Importantly, the cues lead, rather than follow opinion, and do so with consistency. Changes in view did not predict changes in the number or direction of cues. </p><p>The researchers also surveyed nearly 3000 adults to demonstrate the concept. This involved showing them a statement on the scientific consensus around climate change and a cue from either a Republican or a Democrat. This test confirmed the previous observation and provided further support for the notion that signals from leaders cause an increase in skepticism among some respondents.</p><p>Before my left-leaning and Democratic readers get too smug, this research references previous studies demonstrating a similar effect in the lead up to the Iraq War. However, in that case, the Democratic Party elites' mixed messages were countered by a Republican Party united behind the idea of invasion. The effect on the Democratic party rank and file was similar to that observed in this case. </p><p>Several other studies have examined effects similar to this for other issues. This study's importance is its focus on out-group cues and the effort placed into demonstrating a causal relationship between the statements of certain party elites and public opinion. Most previous studies focused purely on in-group cues or failed to differentiate between the two. </p>
Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?
- There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
- Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
- While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
“Upward” versus “downward” counterfactual thinking<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDM2MDY2OX0.njWs1qrV1vDBxU1V75tUduUW4TjJvEHglDWsK8ZF2l4/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C556%2C0%2C209&height=700" id="a15fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98314d4d2b256ed08f42d369fe4ae080" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of man thinking about the past one line drawing counterfactual thinking" />
What are upward and downward counterfactual thinking?
Image by one line man on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is upward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Upward counterfactual thinking happens when we look at a scenario and ask ourselves "what if" in terms of how our life could have turned out better. </p><p>Examples of upward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I wish I had taken that other job instead of this one 10 years ago - my life would be so much better if I had." </em></li><li><em>"I wish I would have gotten the part in that high school play, maybe I could have gotten into a theatre school and became an actor…"</em> </li></ul><p>Both of these examples have the ideology that if you had made different choices, your life right now would be improved. </p><p><strong>What is downward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Downward counterfactual thinking is, naturally, the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking in that we think about how things could have been worse if other decisions had been made. </p><p>Examples of downward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I'm so thankful I studied secondary education in university instead of psychology like I had originally planned - I love teaching high school kids and I never would have gotten to do that…" </em></li><li><em>"I'm so happy I left David when I got the chance, I can't imagine still being in an unhappy marriage with someone who doesn't support me…"</em> </li></ul><p>In these examples, we see the idea that if you had made different choices your life would not be as good as it is right now. </p>
How counterfactual thinking can impact your life<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjI2MDQxOX0.DIVQ-Yk0d6yE3tc743MH1Fz2pOg1TGHLmhp8dPp9UdY/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="522d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="da7df6ad916b043e3610223900d0f8df" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="man thinking what if written on chalkboard" />
How do upward and downward counterfactual thinking impact your life?
Photo by Brasil Creativo on Shutterstock<p>While many people don't see the point in "what if" scenarios, various studies have found that downward counterfactual thinking can be more associated with psychological health compared with upward counterfactual thinking. Not only that, but research has also shown upward counterfactual thinking can be linked with current and future depression.</p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health </strong></p><p>According to a <a href="http://journal.sjdm.org/jdm06136.pdf" target="_blank">2000 study</a>, downward counterfactual thinking can be linked with better psychological health compared to upward counterfactual thinking. More importantly, in cases where downward counterfactual thinking did lead to negative feelings, those feelings acted as something of a motivator for people to take productive actions to better their current situation. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with depression </strong></p><p><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735816301714#:~:text=An%20upward%20counterfactual%20(as%20opposed,Markman%20and%20McMullen%2C%202003)." target="_blank">According to a 2017 study</a> that pooled a sample of over 13,000 respondents, thoughts about "better outcomes" and regret (upward counterfactual thinking) were associated with current and future depression. </p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking can actually improve your relationships and is more often engaged in by women than men.</strong></p><p>In a <a href="https://dspace.sunyconnect.suny.edu/bitstream/handle/1951/67589/Studer_Thesis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank">2016 research paper submitted</a> to the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, downward counterfactual thinking in regards to romantic relationships was associated with relatively positive relationship outcomes. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to engage in downward counterfactual thinking about their romantic life. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking can have some benefits in certain scenarios. </strong></p><p>When we look back after a failed test and think "I wish I would have studied more" - this motivates us to study harder the next time a test comes up. In this way, upward counterfactual thinking (or the negative version of "what if") can actually benefit us. </p> <p><strong>This can be difficult, though, because much of the time upward counterfactual thinking is more associated with a pessimistic outlook that can be unmotivating. </strong></p> <p>Thinking in the past tense can be motivational (and even healthy) at times, but the best thing to do is look forward. </p><p>While counterfactual thinking as a whole can be used to motivate us to make better choices or appreciate where we are in life, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201809/the-psychology-what-if" target="_blank">this Psychology Today</a> article suggests that we should come up with ways to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of the past. Using counterfactual thinking as a motivational tool can be very helpful if we don't get stuck in the "what if" mindset that tends to pull us out of the present and back into the past, where things will always remain the same. </p>