Bill Montgomery sat in the hall of the Iowa Memorial Student Union and whispered to me that socialism is infecting America. Montgomery is a founder and senior advisor to the conservative campus activist group, Turning Point USA (TPU). He told me he discovered Charlie Kirk. It was he who gave Kirk the idea to start TPU. It was he who drove Kirk around the country from speaking gig to speaking gig, before Kirk was old enough to rent cars.
Montgomery looks like he wants to be important. I had seen him in the crowd at the TPU event—tall, white man, wearing a suit, thick white hair.
He tells me a story his father told him, about socialists and communists secretly infiltrating our colleges and universities. And now, it’s not a secret anymore. Now they are in congress, now they are running for president. This is the war he tells me. The war against socialism. The war for Christian America.
Socialism is the strawman of reactionary American fear. Any idea, any effort, any person deemed unacceptable is painted in the broad brush of socialism. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s the rallying cry of Sen. Joni Ernst who began her re-election campaign by promising to “stamp out socialism.” Even Democratic voters, who want Medicare for all and health care reform are nervous about the appearance of socialism in the party.
The fear behind socialism is closely linked to the Cold War and fear of the USSR, which was the first nominally socialist state. But the actualities of socialism have little to do with the USSR and more to do with ideas and policies that put control back into the hands of the collective rather than corporations.
At its core, socialism is the idea that goods, services, and social systems are collectively owned. That can mean public ownership, collective or cooperative ownership. In the New Testament, when early Christians sell their goods and give their money to the church, that’s a form of socialism. When businesses, like the Hy-Vee tout employee-ownership, that’s a form of socialism.
Socialism is the ideological basis behind the most powerful institutions in America—Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security. Intuitions and services that have helped countless Americans.
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But the rhetoric of fear has made the word almost meaningless. Calling come someone a socialist makes as much sense as accusing them of being a heinous blorksniffer—it’s ridiculous and meaningless. At least if you say blorksniffer it’s kind of funny. Socialism doesn’t have the wit of blorksnifferism. As a tool of rhetoric the word socialist is a brute cudgel in the hands of troglodytic reactionaries who want nothing more than to make America afraid again.
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