“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” the man said, launching a thousand ironic riffs. Medicare, of course, is a government program. Asking the government not to deal with Medicare is like asking Disney not to intervene at Epcot.
The phrase is eternal in part because it so neatly captures one particular view of government services: The government can’t be trusted to do things except the things it does that I like. It’s trivial to extend that outward to capture a debate that’s potent at the moment: Government-run programs are unacceptable socialism, except the good ones.
Earlier this week, two news stories overlapped in a seemingly contradictory way. In one, the Trump administration floated plans to save $15 billion by dumping more than 3 million people off food stamps. In the other, President Trump himself celebrated spending $16 billion to bail out some of the more than 3 million farmers, after his trade war with China crippled some agricultural sales.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell pointed out on Friday that this is sort of a feature of the Trump administration. The power of the government can and should be deployed for programs and people Republicans like, but everything else is an unacceptable expense or, worse, socialism. (That word should be read with the same intonation you’d use to say “the boogeyman” to a 4-year-old you were trying to scare.)
To bolster her point, Rampell cited an Economist-YouGov poll released this week that surveyed Americans on socialism. It’s a fascinating poll, with some revealing results.
First, the pollsters asked people their views of socialism. Republicans were much more likely to have an opinion of the term — and way more likely to say that they hated it.
But, interestingly, they were also less likely to see various government programs or proposals as embodying socialism.
It’s not clear which way the arrow points here. Are Republicans more reticent to label things as socialism because they like them? Or are they more hostile to socialism because they see fewer things as socialistic? The result, though, is that, with the exception of the first two proposals, Republicans are less likely to see the included policies as embodying socialism.
That leads to a rather complicated result.
There are three policies listed that deal with health care. There’s free health care for all, Medicare (which covers all Americans older than 65) and government medical care for veterans. The first of those is a proposal that’s closely associated with Democrats and has been part of the discussion during the party’s still-young 2020 presidential nomination fight. The other two aid seniors and members of the military, both groups that lean Republican.
And guess what? Nearly all of the Republicans see the Democratic proposal as socialism — and very few use the term for the other two programs.
There’s certainly room to argue about the extent to which any of these things are truly socialism. It’s also true that, of the health-care-related policies, both Democrats and independents are more likely to call the health-care-for-all proposal “socialism.” But there’s a nearly 50-point gap in the likelihood that a Republican will call Medicare socialism and the likelihood they’ll say that of free health care for everyone. The same gap among Democrats is 11 points.
We circle back to our friend from South Carolina. Medicare exists and is used by many people, therefore it is good, therefore it is not something the can’t-do-anything-right government should mess with, and therefore it is not socialism.
Rampell, in her column, pointed to an even more remarkable example: Social Security, which again mostly goes to older Americans, is viewed as socialism by about a quarter of Republicans. Maybe, to make this less confusing, we should start calling it Capital Security.