Why Americans Misunderstand & Fear Socialism…Very Interesting Thinking from Heather Cox Richardson; Election Update

I draw primarily from two sources today: HCR’s incredible piece on the origins of US fear of socialism, and a piece from The Week describing how culture, parenting, and pschology shape and limit political perspectives.

Apologies about yesterday’s incoherent headline. I had a great headline, then went to change it. Bad idea as I left a word in that made the headline incoherent. When you make that kind of mistake in the body of the post, you can quickly change it. Not so, with headlines. I apologize.

Saturday, 8:30 am, Retake Conversation on KSFR, 101.1 FM or Streaming Live from KSFR.org: Conversation with Richard Eeds. I’ve appeared on his radio show so often, I thought I’d return the favor. And Richard is always such an engaging and witty host, I expect the show will be most entertaining. We’ll be discussing the state and national election, Trump, the obelisk, and the spate of destruction of Biden-Harris signs. Should be fun. If you miss it, catch the recording at this link after 10am on Saturday. If you can’t wait until Saturday, I’ll be on Richard’s show on Friday at 2:30 on KTRC 1260 or on 103.7 Talk Radio. I’m looking forward to this, as Richard and I always have lively banter.

Election Update

Late Breaking in NM: Candidates are buying last-minute radio ads to flood the airwaves over the weekend, so if you can’t call on behalf of these candidates please consider a donation. The three most vulnerable races are:

  • Neomi Martinez Parra in her Senate District 35 race. This is by far our greatest priority as polling shows her narrowly trailing: neomi4nmsenate.com
  • Claudia Risner in her race against Greg Schmedes. This race is also neck and neck and a last-minute push could defeat a truly heinous legislator. Schmedes is the bane of anything related to women’s rights, gun safety, abortion rights, and health security, so if those things matter to you, this is a chance to remove a truly bad legislator. Click here.
  • Pam Cordova in her race in Senate District 30. I’m told she needs $500 to complete funding for radio ads. Roxanne and I got her part way there, but she will need $300 to reach her goal. pamcordovaforsenate.com

Late-Breaking National. The polls continue to reflect a growing Biden lead in key swing states, with new GOP states being added to the “in play” states, hence Harris’ visit to Texas yesterday.

Thursday, Nov 5, 6:30-8pm Election Zoom De-Brief, with Five New NM State Senators: Neomi Martinez Parra, Harold Pope, Pam Cordova, Carrie Hamblen, Siah Correa Hemphill, with Eric Griego and Neri Holguin, campaign manager extraordinaire, joining the conversation. Hopefully all five of these candidates will have won their races and will be readying for their first legislative session. They will be key factors in decriminalizing abortion, passing the Health Security Act, putting NM on a path to having a state public bank, and putting the Green Amendment on the ballot. You can meet them all and ask questions about their priorities and positions. Find out what will be possible with a fixed NM State Senate!

Click here to register.

Why Do Americans Tremble At the Word Socialism?

On a superficial level I have long understood that the roots of the US public’s fear of socialism is grounded in Cold War fear of Russia, Communism, and falling dominoes. But a serendipitous receipt of two articles this week has led to a far deeper understanding. Certainly, the conflation of socialism with communism is a part of this fear, but the roots go much further back in our history than the post war era and much deeper within our psyche than a simplistic Communism = Socialism = Loss of Freedom equation.

In her Oct. 27 post, Heather Cox Richardson did an excellent job of tracing the first manifestation of fear of socialism in the US.

American “socialism” is a very different thing than what Marx was describing in his theoretical works. Fear of it erupted in the 1870s, long before the rise of international socialism, and it grew out of the peculiar American context of the years after the Civil War. During the war, Republicans had both invented national taxation—including the income tax—and welcomed African American men to the ballot box. This meant that, after the Civil War, for the first time in American history, voting had a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks.

From Letters from an American: “Heather Cox Richardson, October 27”

Democrats were wary of income taxes and an influx of black voters, with Southern Democrats organizing through the Ku Klux Klan to repress black voting through lynching, riots, and other less overtly oppressive actions. When President Grant bridled at these attack on blacks, he created the Department of Justice to arrest Klansmen and at least try to curtail KKK activity. With a large segment of the US population opposed to such overtly racist attacks on blacks, the southern Democrats shifted their framing of the issue, focusing on class instead of on race.

“In the South of the post-Civil War years, almost all property holders were white. They argued that Black voting amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to poor Black people. It was, they insisted, “socialism,” or, after workers in Paris created a Commune in 1871, “communism.”

From Letters from an American: “Heather Cox Richardson, October 27”

And so, America’s resistence to socialism had its roots first in racism and then in the desire to maintain the oligarchy that ruled America, all this 40 years before the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Fear of “socialism” was used to help the oligarchy maintain control of its wealth, and any time since then that any political party proposed to raise taxes or expand government’s role in building infrastructure, regulating business, protecting the environment, or creating a social safety net, the knee-jerk response was “socialism” and government taking away your freedom. What was really in play was not about protecting your freedom from government, but ensuring your enslavement to land barons and industry. Guess who benefitted from that reframing of issues?

HCR goes on to contrast how Americans so deeply fear socialism but are able to abide and even actively support the deep fascist roots of the Trump regime. It is a fascinating explication and worthy of your time. Click here to read her full post.

HCR laid out the historic roots to America’s fear of socialism, and last week, I wrote a piece, “Why 40+% of Americans Will Vote for Trump & Why Increasing Numbers are Committed to Violence to Defend MAGA,about why people support Trump. The focus in that post was less about how Trump support derived from of fear of socialism as it was out of working class people’s sense that both Democrat and Republican parties had ignored their needs and that Democrats in particular favored policies that feathered Wall St.’s nest while ignoring the needs of working people.

But I received another article on Thursday from The Week, “The very different emotional lives of Trump and Biden voters.” Written by Damon Linker, this piece laid out another root cause for America’s fears of socialism, describing how those fears arise from deep within our psyche with roots in our culture and in the consequences derived from different approaches to parenting. This was a very interesting analysis that rang very true for me personally. I was hooked by Linker’s piece by the third paragraph:

What if the political chasm separating so-called blue and red America — and maybe even the yawning gender gap within and across regions — ultimately comes down to cultural differences that have their roots in the way parents and schools and broader cultural milieus shape the psyches of children, and especially boys, who grow up there?

From The Week, “The very different emotional lives of Trump and Biden voters.”

Linker then goes on to compare how his friends who come from his class and educational background invariably revile Trump: “He’s corrupt. He’s cruel. He’s a bigot. He’s ignorant. He’s mendacious. He’s a narcissist. And he’s a jerk. Unlike many previous presidents, there is nothing admirable about him at all. ” Linker goes on to say that Trump exemplifies everything you would want your child not to become. Then he turns to his friends who support Trump:

“most of them men, many of them from other parts of the country, quite often with military backgrounds — he looks very different. For them, Trump is a man of strength, of courage. He’s a fighter and a patriot. Even if he’s not particularly admirable as a person overall, he has qualities that we should want to have in a leader, and that are under threat in our country. They are qualities that Americans, and especially boys, should be raised to look up to and emulate, including a refusal to back down, a toughness and tenacity, and a willingness to insist that masculine strength be revered and inculcated.”

From The Week, “The very different emotional lives of Trump and Biden voters.”

Linker then goes on to reflect on the different ways some kids are raised, particularly boys, depending on the demographics of the home (income, education, urban vs rural, and the implications of being raised in a military home). He first developed a somewhat stereotype-based description of the middle class, well-educated parenting style. While I found this interesting, I grew up in that home and had my own experience to consider. I will draw on that after discussing parenting in a low-income, less educated, and possibly military family.

“If you are a boy raised by an authoritarian father to valorize toughness above all the other virtues, to look on displays of parental love and affection with contempt, to treat anger as the only acceptable emotion, to denigrate vulnerability in others and in oneself, to view love itself as something that risks a pain and loss too lacerating to bear — well, then you just might come to look down on and even hate those who accept a wider range of feeling, and look up to those who grandiloquently display their callousness.”

From The Week, “The very different emotional lives of Trump and Biden voters.”

This gave me pause. We have friends who support Trump and where, indeed, the husband is a military man and was raised in a military family. I grew up in a middle class environment. But during my formative years, two qualities of my upbringing come to mind. First my parents divorced when I was four so I was raised by my mother and in the absence of a strong partriarchal figure. Second, as I have gotten older I’ve come to appreciate my mother’s approach to parenting and how much it differed from homes where a mother’s common response to misbehavior might well be: “wait until your father comes home.”

I was not an easy child to raise. I was suspended twice and ultimately expelled from an elementary school that did not suspend students. The last straw was when I was accused falsely of hitting a girl. I and several witnesses reported to the principal that a girl who was quite a bit bigger and stronger than me had pinned me down and was punching me, when I pushed her off me….the “me pushing her off of me” caused the principal, a mean-spirited authoritarian who hated me, to grin and tell me I would not be playing in the city basketball championship the next day. At first I cried a bit as my mom tried to comfort me, and then I leapt across the principal’s dask and punched him right in the face. I was expelled. Off to military school for a semester, but not before going home to face my mom.

We got home and my mom announced what was always the next step, “let’s go in the back and talk.” And there we sat and talked about what happened. Of course, she was upset with my punching the principal, of course she was upset I had been expelled, but the focus was on how it had felt to be falsely accused, punished, and powerless. We talked about what I could have done differently, but not in an accusing way, in a questioning way. “What else could you have said before Dr. French issued his consequence?” “What about afterward, when he said you couldn’t play?” We talked for a long time. She was never angry and she didn’t give me any punishment. Despite having had ongoing issues at school until 8th grade, she never raised a hand to me and whatever consequence was issued was done with kindness and even humor. At the end of the expulsion conversation, she finally smiled and said: “I bet that punch felt good.” She couldn’t stand Dr. French either.

This was how I was raised. I went into more detail than needed, but I wanted to paint a vivid, personal contrast with what a boy like my neighbor who was raised in a strong patriarchal home with a military father might have experienced. I am guessing that the consequence would have been handled “when your father comes home,” and that “going into the back” would not have involved much problem-solving but likely at least a swat or two from a belt, if not worse.

So what is the different impact of growing up in a permissive, empathic home and growing up in a strong, authoritarian one? I questioned authority, I am guessing in military homes, you respect authority unquestioningly, beginning with your father and extending to Dr. French and to President Trump.

But as I thought about this more deeply I also onconsidered how religion and culture play into the differences between my neighbor and I, and between Trump supporters and Biden supporters. I considered how the importance of building personal strength, of respecting authority, doesn’t only derive from a military upbringing, but more broadly from growing up within an American culture predicated on imperialism, conquest, exceptionalism, and self-sufficiency, all having underpinnings in the Puritan ethic, Calvinism, and the US’s uniquely hubristic understanding of history. With that as your cultural milieu, you didn’t oppose the Viet Nam war, you fought it, unquestioningly. You didn’t rely on handouts, you stood strong and fended for yourself, you were the head of the household, the provider.

Provider. That is a powerful term and a huge responsibility. So imagine how fragile the psyche of a provider who has been laid off from his job and can no longer provide. Imagine the complex psychological gymnastics a provider faces, someone who has prided himself in his self-sufficiency and excoriated those who took handouts, when he can no longer provide, when the government is offering $600 a week.

First and foremost, the provider, the boy raised in an authoritarian home that obeys more than questions and acts more than thinks or feels, is not easily going to explore his feelings or the root causes of his predicament; he is going to look for a scapegoat — an immigrant, a Democrat, a liberal. And so one of the allures of Trump’s rhetoric is derived from Trump’s wall and his visceral descriptions of immigrants. Second, the allure of Trump is that he can explain the provider’s situation as being the fault of the Chinese, the Democrats, AOC, socialism. And the authoritarian president can stand in contrast to a “sleepy” Joe. Trump is the uber Provider, the autocratic president who doesn’t back down, who will defend “the American way of life” at all costs.

As we close, I want to stress one last element to our nation’s fear of socialism and that has much to do with our cultural milieu as it does our embedded colonialist-Christian ethos. We are pioneers who blaze trails, take no prisoners, and need no support. We face adversity on our own and that is how we build character. And so a social safety net is a threat to that ethos. To accept welfare is to admit personal failure. For the government to intervene to support vulnerable populations is to undermine the capacity for people to face challenges on their own and build resilience and character. Or as Jared Kushner put it, “blacks have to want it [success] badly enough.”

In all of this, there is no acknowledgment of a deck that for centuries that has been stacked against women and people of color and with all the aces held by the oligarchs, that the need for support is the result of an oppressive system that has made it ever so easy for Kushner to succeed and to live in a world that has never seen the challenges most of us face daily. And so, for those who embrace the American ethos that those with character succeed and the weak fail and deserve to, a political philosophy that is empathic and supportive is reduced to being “socialist,” even if we are talking about a moderate like Joe Biden. Any effort to help others address their challenges is reduced to “socialism” and dismissed, thereby preserving oligarchic control. To the Provider, a government that provides erodes his status as Provider, and so, rather than embrace a government that provides, the Provider is fearful and threatened as that government erodes his status, undermines his authority, and reduces his role.

And this lands us on January 20, 2021 when Biden will inherit a frayed nation, one where most all of its residents feel vulnerable, insecure and in need of support. He will inherit an immense problem that the failure of government intervention will have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. And he will activate government.

Fast forward several months and Americans will have experienced what happens when government exercises its proper authority, when it functions as our Provider. Tens of millions of Americans will be forced to acknowledge that the world can no longer abide an ideology based on exceptionalism and individualism, we are all interconnected and our individual behaviors impact all of us. We need to work together to survive and the best framework for organizing that collaboration of people is government. We will have lived through a repudiation of Ronald Reagan’s famous comment that the nine words Americans should most fear: “I’m from the government and I am here to help.” In 2021, Americans will experience what happens when government exercises its proper role and contrast it with the laissez faire model of government and how it had failed them. That will be lesson # 1. We need each other to survive and we need to government to moderate and organize our cooperation.

But we need to do more than survive. We need to thrive and so we must continue the education process, of informing America that we are better when we work together, when we pool our resources and devote them in service of justice for all of us. We must formulate a clearly articulated ideology that describes how a social safety net, a universal health system, a free educational system that begins at age 3 and extends through adulthood can all supported by a steeply progressive tax system that pools and distributes our collective resources in service of all of us instead of in service to Wall St.

Lesson # 2 will be that the ideology informing this transformation is indeed, democratic socialism and that is not something to be feared, but to relish, because in working together, in sharing, in acknowledging our connectedness and understanding and experiencing the benefits of collective effort, we enjoy true personal freedom, freedom from economic and health insecurity.

There is one last lesson we need to derive from 2021. Not only are all Americans connected, but all humans, indeed all beings are also connected. We will need to embrace that connectedness if we are to build anything like a livable, sustainable, just planet as we turn our attention from Covid and economic recession and face down the real existential threat: the looming climate catastrophe.

In 2021 we can learn to survive, But we can do more, we can learn to thrive….Together. Onward.

In solidarity and hope,

Paul & Roxanne



Categories: Economic Justice, Community & Economic Development

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8 replies

  1. Bravo!! I’ve told people, including a priest who understood what I meant, that what Jesus was teaching, was the same as socialism, love and take care of everyone, no exceptions!

  2. Thank you for this blog post.
    We do need a new mind – a way of thinking where we individually feel deeply identified with and part of our communities, and concerned for our communities’ well-being. Our communities must include Earth and every living thing.
    Then we will have true strength.

  3. Socialism is a scare word they’ve hurled at every advance the people have made. Socialism is what they called public power, social security, deposit insurance, and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for anything that helps all people.

    –Harry Truman, 1952

  4. Very nice essay, Paul. I especially liked the part about your own growing up experience.
    One addition about the fear of Socialism. I talked to a friend who spent years in Miami. He said the Cuban people there were Trump supporters because they were terrified the US would turn into the “Socialist” Cuba they had fled.

  5. Having now read HRC’s article and your comments on it, my feeling is that this is (historically speaking) rather incomplete. Going back to the founding, there has always been a battle in America between those in favor of big government and those favoring individual self determination, and it hasn’t always been the capitalist/property owners who were against “big government” (~ socialism).

    For example, Jefferson favored a decentralized agrarian republic, while Hamilton (supported by northern industrialists) favored an activist national government, including such measures as a national bank, a protective tariff and government regulation of interstate trade. Hamilton feared anarchy and thought in terms of order; Jefferson feared tyranny and thought in terms of freedom.

    One needs to recall that in the early 19th century, 80% of the male non-slave population of the U.S. was self employed either as small farmers or artisans. This (only marginally capitalist) social structure was indeed exceptional in the world at that time and lead to the development of a uniquely American line of radical thought: Individualist anarchism (which some characterize as a form of artisanal socialism).

    Although influenced by foreign thinkers such as Proudhon, Max Stirner and Herbert Spencer, a particularly American line of thought was developed by American anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Josiah Warren who published the influential periodicals the “The Peaceful Revolutionist” (which started publication in 1833) and “Liberty”. The emergence of individualist anarchism in the U.S. in the 1820’s and 1830’s paralleled and strongly influenced the abolitionist movement and in the late 19th century heavily influenced the early women’s rights movements.

    It should be noted that individualist anarchism is hardly a right wing philosophy (for example Warren was one of the original proponents of a ‘labor theory of value’) and had a strong influence on the more radical elements of the U.S. labor movement in the late 1900’s, evolving into the type of anarcho-communism advocated, for example, by the International Workers of the World and the Western Federation of Miners.

    What really put off the American general public to “socialism” prior to WW! and the Russian Revolution was that many anarcho-communist groups and labor unions advocated (and in many cases practiced) “propaganda of the deed” which suggested that political violence, terrorism and assassination were legitimate methods to achieve social change. (For example, the assassination of President McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz). In addition, many of the people involved in the late 19th/early 20th century labor movement were immigrants (often from eastern or southern Europe) leading many “nativist” Americans to think of the associated “socialist” political philosophy as “unamerican”.

    Add to this that Americans have been (for the most part) very religious, and that many versions of anarchism/socialism have anti-religious elements, it is not surprising that there is a long history of aversion to “socialism” in the U.S.

  6. How about ongoing project starting Nov 4th….

    Messaging underneath two column headings — ever-growing list on yard signs/ billboards/ store windows,growing over time/ personalized over time

    SOCIALISM / PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
    Public Libraries / Build your own library if you want one
    Public Parks / None but owner owned
    Public Schools / Family-funded private education
    Publicly funded fire, police / Private protection only.
    Publicly funded courts /Warlord justice

    ALSO, and this is a pet peeve of mine, somewhere in the list the message
    DON’T TRUST THE NEW YORK TIMES with an app that takes you to
    https://fair.org/home/sidney-embers-secret-sources/

  7. Sorry for being late to this party, but after reading Paul’s autobiographical reflections, and how the personal translates to the political, I want to point to George Lakoff and his analysis in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (and other writings). Lakoff has a theory that conservatives are the product of what he calls Strict Father Morality, and liberals of Nurturant Parent Morality. His analysis is more nuanced than I can summarize here, but you can get the gist from his naming. The strict father model paints the world in black and white and emphasizes individual self-control and responsibility. The nurturant model emphasizes complexity and the ways people are shaped by forces outside their control. Lakoff can sometimes be simplistic but it is a powerful framework that has helped me understand the assumptions that go into our rival political traditions. I tried to use this model recently to understand Clarence Thomas:

    //www.adamideas.org/2020/07/clarence-thomas-tough-fathers-and-the-partisan-divide-over-policing/

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