This article originally appeared in The Atlantic
Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders defined his vision for democratic socialism in an address at George Washington University. The speech elicited mixed reactions from political reporters and scholars, several of whom questioned how Sanders had evoked socialism, and from some of Sanders’s Democratic rivals. When my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere told Senator Michael Bennet the title of the speech, “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism,” Bennet responded, “I don’t think the American people even know what that means.”
To John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, such debates about the use of the democratic-socialist label are a losing enterprise for everyone involved, because the American public doesn’t have a shared understanding of what socialism signifies. “When we’re talking about politics, especially today, with politics as urgent as it is, we can’t use terms for which we would have a hard time explaining the meanings,” he said Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
The problem isn’t just with democratic socialism, McWhorter said, but extends more broadly into how the American left refers to its politics. He argued that some words are too weighted with history, ambiguity, and disparaging associations to be a part of effective political communication. By using them, politicians, political commentators, and voters are consigning themselves to an unnecessary battle to clarify and defend their positions. He specifically cited two terms that American politicians should discard: Socialism is the first; the other is liberalism.
Liberalism’s original iteration, now referred to as “classical liberalism,” developed in the early 19th century. Classical liberals, according to McWhorter, believed that one should be “free from obstacles to being your best self.” Policy-wise, that translated into advocacy for unrestricted free markets and civil liberties.
In the modern day, the torch of classical liberalism is kept burning by its ideological descendant, libertarianism, and the label classical liberal is embraced by decidedly un-liberal figures in today’s parlance, such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
The term “neoliberalism”—also overly difficult to parse, in McWhorter’s eyes—originated as a modified form of classical liberalism in the early 20th century. The first neoliberals were people who generally embraced liberal thought but felt that capitalism should be regulated, in ways that still allowed markets to thrive. Today, McWhorter noted, the term is often used to evoke a caricature of “a cigar-chomping plutocrat.”
Like neoliberalism, the ideology now called liberalism also emerged around the turn of the 20th century as a reformed version of classical liberal ideology. At first, it was called “social liberalism.” Social liberals, rather than supporting free markets and individual liberty, advocated for the government to take a more active role in addressing social and economic issues like poverty, exploitation, and discrimination. “The idea was that not only do you want people to be free from certain basic hindrances to the pursuit of happiness,” McWhorter said, “but you wish to give people certain things”—things like health care, or old-age insurance, or unemployment support.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented the New Deal as a liberal platform in the 1930s, his predecessor Herbert Hoover pushed back against the characterization in an article for The Atlantic. “The term ‘liberal’ flows from the word ‘liberty’; it does not come from the word ‘coercion,’” he wrote. “The New Deal has camouflaged itself with this honored term.” With the passage of Roosevelt’s agenda, however, McWhorter said social liberalism effectively became America’s “default state”—and was widely understood simply as liberalism.
The word socialism has undergone less of an ideological shift, but is similarly burdened by historical associations. The term was first used in the early 1800s to differentiate an idealist vision of cooperative society from the individualism advocated by classical liberals. By the latter half of the 19th century, socialism took on its more modern meaning, referring to the advancement of collective economic and political control.
By Annika Neklason