There was a time in Wyoming when it was enough for competing politicians to contrast their views as either Democrats or Republicans. Candidates chose which of those two labels they would use. The label mattered less than the substance. People didn’t care which party you represented. They wanted to know who you were and what you stood for.
Back then Wyoming had a healthy political debate. Sometimes the Republican candidate won, sometimes the Democrat. I don’t know when that changed but prior to 1976, sixteen men represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate (the Equality State has never elected a woman). Ten were Republicans. Six were Democrats.
Until 1978, Wyoming elected 14 men to the U.S. House of Representatives. The partisan division was nine Republicans and five Democrats. For many decades, the state saw value in having members of both parties in the congressional delegation. But all that changed in the late 1970s. Since 1976, Wyoming has refused to send a Democrat to Washington, rejecting even the popular former governor Mike Sullivan.
Arguably there are many reasons. One thing that changed is the tone of the debate. Somewhere along the line, it became insufficient to define your opponent as simply a member of one of the two political parties. Republicans began to identify Democrats as “liberals.” The dialogue about issues was replaced with labels. Voters accepted the shorthand. They quit caring so much about where a candidate actually stood on the issues. It was enough to learn he or she might just be a liberal.
Eventually, that term lost its punch. Now they are “socialists.” The term is used by people who cannot define it in order to persuade voters who, likewise, cannot define it. It all started when Sarah Palin found she could get a rise out of her audiences by claiming Barack Obama was one. She took a page out of the playbook of that erudite political philosopher Joe the Plumber. The term caught fire and has been a mainstay of the debate ever since, especially popular among right-wing media entertainers.
The use of the term may, as they say, electrify the base. But using it demonstrates an abject level of ignorance. I ask speakers who use the term to tell me what it means. I have yet to get an answer. They may not know what it means but they know it scares the voters.
What is socialism? Socialism is an economic concept that advocates public ownership of all resources. Members of a society control the production and distribution of all resources collectively. Goods are produced and distributed based on need rather than on market forces such as profitability, price and consumers' purchasing power. In a socialist economy, workers contribute to society based on their ability and receive according to their needs, rater than being paid wages and using that money to purchase what they want. Private possessions are limited to personal-use items such as clothing. There is no need or ability for individuals to accumulate wealth. The goa is equality among the people.
The second chapter of the Book of Acts describes early Christians that way. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” Now, first century Christians could be called socialists. But there is absolutely no evidence that twenty-first century Democrats are.
Today the definition of the term has been intentionally dumbed down. Today it is a term used by some to describe anyone they think should be kept put of public office or denied access to the public arena. Conservatives learned from Joe McCarthy that it’s enough to use words that frighten people. The words don’t have to be true. The speaker doesn’t even have to know what they mean. The words may demean democracy, but, what matters most is winning, right?
So, just toss the word out there and see what happens.