The only thing I dislike about New England is that whenever I have an inspiration about a feature of our beautiful, but sequestered life, I discover that another immigrant far more talented — Robert Frost — has already been there. Likewise commentary on the socio-political scene: Whenever I think I’ve devised a new approach to some of the problems that appear to be besetting our nation, I can only exclaim, along with Charlie Brown, “Rats!” A flock of historians and columnist Paul Krugman have beaten me to it.
Nevertheless, I persist. I notice, for example, that in our never-ending (and media-stoked) fascination with the next election, no matter how far off (Canada sometimes looks awfully good from here), the positioning and sloganeering, as well as the sniping, are almost without surcease. At times, it all gets old. And yet, as I’ve suggested, we’re fascinated to read of the latest development.
I’ve been delighted to note the increase in the ethnicities, let alone the gender, of the latest crop of new members of the House of Representatives. Elected, as many of them were, on a wave of rebellious passion by more younger voters than usual, they are themselves pretty passionate in some cases. Speaker Nancy Pelosi functions at times like the chaperone on a high school class trip.
All very exciting. And for a lot of old, entrenched white guys, more than a little threatening. How can you tell? Check out the fake, doctored or gaslighted attacks in social media, and pick up the ominous references in the president’s speeches — as well as, now, those of his secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin. The president states that “America will never become a socialist nation, I promise you!” and the secretary, “America will never go back to socialism.” Racking my brains and experience, I can’t come up with a time that it ever was — not, at least, in their implied meaning of the word.
Here in the Home of the Brave, many of us react as if it were an evil monster lurking in our rooms at bedtime. To flog the metaphor further, we jump fearfully over it and dive under the covers without looking to see whether or what it may be. This is not the path of wisdom.
Older Americans have been habituated to react negatively to the term socialism. It’s been to blame for most of the world’s evils, from the murder of the tsar and his family to the National Recovery Act. My own stern, staunch Republican forebears resisted with every fiber what historian Daniel Rodgers has called “a great, explosive release of the pent-up agenda of the progressive past.” A Republican Congress, fearing that Harry Truman might emulate FDR’s political longevity, limited presidents to two terms and elected Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s director of the CIA, Allen Dulles (whose sexual shenanigans make President Trump’s look like high school crushes), became incensed at Iran’s first elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh (“that madman Mossadegh!”) when the prime minister moved to nationalize the British oil companies that were bleeding his country’s resources. The CIA collaborated in a coup that replaced him with the shah. We know how that ended, and yet wonder why Iran is a little tetchy toward us.
It hasn’t helped that the Soviet Union, who Sen. Joseph McCarthy assured us was about to devour us from within, was called a union of “socialist republics.” It’s helped even less that Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a frankly Communist nation, has been lumped with socialism, yet seems to be limping along just fine in spite of the decades-old animus of the mighty gringo nation only 90 miles to the north. Nor are any thanks due to Hugo Chavez or his favored successor, Nicolas Maduro, both of whom have called their failing governments socialist, when they’re actually chaotic combinations of populism and kleptocracy.
Our president, never much for Marquess of Queensberry or Robert’s Rules, has, I’m certain, never read Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” But he’s already begun to frame the argument of the next 21 months, as a battle between blood-red, independent American values (MAGA) and the monstrous socialist state envisioned and promoted by what he calls (dog-whistle!) the Democrat Party.
It’s no good to argue that all our infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports — and public services including police, fire department, snowplowing, even 9/11, are the result of a “socialist” idea: that people, pooling their resources, can enjoy a better life than each could afford on his own. Instead, embrace the frame! Recognize that young Americans don’t fear it as do their elders; avoid pontification; remember that would-be “strong men” hate humor and satire (SNL, anyone?); and perhaps take a page from the famous 1952 “If by Whiskey” speech by Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat Jr. Social democracy isn’t the monster under your bed. It’s the road at the foot of your driveway and a damn good thing it is, too. It’s what we’ve already got. But given the current and escalating problems of our government, it needs a good shot in the arm.
Willem Lange lives in East Montpelier.