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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.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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