The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What ‘socialism’ means in America today

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks in San Francisco on March 24. (Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Regarding Robert J. Samuelson’s March 25 op-ed, “Has America gone socialist?”:

Programs mentioned by Mr. Samuelson such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment insurance do not make the United States a welfare state. They are the kinds of social safety net programs that all civilized societies should offer. The programs enjoy public approval not because “they seem the decent thing to do” but because they are the essential thing to do in a civilized society. Experience shows only capitalist societies generate the resources that can sustain a safety net.

Socialism, which traces its roots to Plato, not just to Karl Marx, branched out into two camps in the early 20th century: communism (which, I think, is what Mr. Samuelson refers to as “Marxist socialism”) and social democracy. The social democrats want to achieve socialist goals through democratic means and free markets — another name for capitalism. The experience of nations following communism hasn’t been encouraging, China’s notwithstanding. The successes of several nations in Western Europe, North America and Asia in the 20th and early 21st centuries offer the scenario that led to great successes of social democracy and free markets.  

Vinod Jain, Ashburn

Though I usually appreciate Robert J. Samuelson’s moderate approach to issues, I was mildly alarmed by his soft-pedaling of the modern strain of American socialism as the sum total of social safety nets established through government to ensure that the most vulnerable citizens are not left abandoned. That doesn’t seem to adequately capture the spirit of this emerging strain. 

As nondemocratic impulses go, socialism represents a particularly insidious means of consolidating power because it suggests that a sophisticated cadre of benevolent technocrats can and will earnestly decide the distribution of society’s production, with the result being a higher order of equality. Those are noble aspirations, but the unspoken coda of that promise is “We, who are wise, will judge for you, who are ignorant.” Why suspect this to be the case in this particular iteration? Because why else, in a time when social institutions in general, and government in particular, are held in such low esteem, would a movement that advocates the expansion of government control over people’s lives be gaining popularity?

I can only guess that the ones who most strongly advocate socialism must also believe in their own inevitable ascension to power and control of that system. “We,” they must think, “will make government work our way.” From such a mind-set, democracy is a nuisance at best, a system in need of elimination at worst.

Michael Doumitt, Woodbridge