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Byron Williams: ‘Socialism’ carries unwanted baggage

Byron Williams: ‘Socialism’ carries unwanted baggage

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Election 2020 Progressives

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., takes the stage at campaign stop Feb. 10 at the Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The pair are known to label their agenda as “democratic socialism.”

The Democratic Party is conflicted with internal differences that must be reconciled if they wish to be seen as the nation’s de facto dominant political party.

Some within the party insist on labeling their agenda as “democratic socialism.” Notable among this group is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and N.Y. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC).

As a practical matter, “democratic socialism” is hardly a mandatory call for everyone to read Mao’s "Little Red Book." It is the adaptation of socialist principles that prohibit democratic societies from delving into the abyss of anarchy. In my view, the G.I. Bill was the key component to establishing a permanent middle class in America.

Passed in 1944, the G.I. Bill assisted, with government backing, millions of returning veterans with housing, education and financial support. The counter-argument against the G.I. Bill’s effectiveness was the discriminatory practices implemented at the local level that denied opportunities to returning veterans of color, primarily African Americans.

But it was still legislation, undergirded by socialist principles, that was a net plus, fortifying the American economy. Where Sanders/AOC, et al., miss the mark is their insistence in shoving the term “socialism” down the throats of the American people. History makes this a nonstarter.

Immediately after the Charlottesville tragedy, President Trump offered, “there were very fine people on both sides,” when avowed Nazis were on one side. Just as that was viewed as reprehensible, similar could be said about socialism. It is to assume the Cold War never occurred. Whether that’s the argument, it is what many people hear.

I recognize it is intellectually incoherent to co-mingle socialism with communism, but the definitions have been hardwired into the American narrative.

When individuals who fled their native Venezuela hear the term socialism in America, what comes to mind? Is it the efficacy of the G.I. Bill or empty shelves, the residue of the late Hugo Chavez's economic system? Whose face is one more apt to associate with socialism, Karl Marx or any of the American presidents?

Democrats can nuance this until they are blue in the face; it is irrelevant. Socialism in the American narrative is government control of the means of production.

The internal debate within the Democratic Party is one marred by arrogance and acute tone-deafness. This may be the reason President-elect Joe Biden underperformed in Dade County in Florida, denying him an even more impressive electoral victory. It may have also cost Democrats seats in the House of Representatives, gained during their impressive 2018 midterm election results.

The distasteful manner in which socialism is held in the public discourse probably has more to do with history than actual implementation. Roughly 15% of the American population is enrolled in Medicare, which for all intents and purposes is socialized medicine. Meanwhile, America languishes as the only industrialized nation that does not offer universal health insurance, with an estimated 27.5 million with no option other than the emergency room for health care.

Given the number of American policies that implement socialist principles, it may be more accurate to suggest that it’s other people’s socialism that creates the most angst in our public discourse. On this latter consideration, we freely concoct a straw person of our antipathy to justify our opposition.

Invoking socialist principles into the economy is not the first step toward eradicating democratic rule. Authoritarianism is the antithesis of a democracy.

This is not an internal policy debate, but one fueled by arrogance, insularity and semantics. As my late grandmother offered, “If you want me to drink from your well, put it in a cup I recognize.” Socialism is not a cup that most Americans recognize.

The Sanders/AOC wing of the party is not as persuasive internally as externally, but they are quite effective in using the media, which brands the party. Rarely are those in Congress who are gifted at receiving media attention equally burdened with the heavy lifting of passing legislation.

Because of their popularity in the public discourse, Democrats, like their Republican counterparts regarding President Trump, are reluctant to openly challenge those who wish to use the term socialist.

Democratic socialism may indeed be the accurate description, but there are not 218 votes in the House or 51 votes in the Senate for any legislation tainted with the term. If one must explain one’s definition of an inflammatory term before discussing the benefits of the policy, one has already lost the debate.

It is more important to win the terminology debate or to pass legislation?

The fact that some within the Democratic Party insist on using a term that, according to an NPR Marist poll, 28% finds favorable, speaks to a profound arrogance that reveals a corrosive underbelly of self-aggrandizement.

The Rev. Byron Williams (, a writer and the host of "The Public Morality" on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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