...it definitely DOESN'T mean what you think it means, Republicans.
The word in question is socialism. And the Republicans are using that word (and it's harsher cousin communism, but in smaller doses) to describe Barack Obama and his Presidential era.
Now, I wanted to add the definition of socialism to this discussion, and I thought about using William Safire's (noted conservative essayist/columnist) Political Dictionary to do so. But he doesn't provide direct definitions: he instead describes 'creeping socialism' as a political code phrase used by Old Guard GOP from the FDR years. All he notes is the word origin coming from the 1850s.
Without Safire for guidance, I went to Webster's:
Socialism. 1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. 2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state. 3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.
Pretty straightforward. What Webster's doesn't explain is the usage of socialism as an insult/mark of intent in American politics. For that you have to examine the whole of 20th Century, the rise of global communism as a threat, and basically the whole Cold War era.
What has to be explained is how 'socialism' became the insult du jour instead of 'communism.' The Cold War era had rampant anti-communist fervor, marked obviously by the McCarthy hearings and constant hunts for hidden Yuris in every branch of government (and Hollywood). While the Republicans were openly waving their anti-commie flags high, the urge to label Democratic opponents as communists (and by extension, traitors) had to be there. Problem was, in that atmosphere of persecution, you had to really PROVE someone was a communist in order to prove your point. You just couldn't point a finger at a Democrat like, say, John Kennedy, and claim he's a Commie. Because he could come right back at you with his War Record (wounded war hero complete with Hollywood film rights) and make you look like a screeching harridan who's just jealous of his good looks... and hell could even take you to court for defamation/libel because back then being labeled a commie was a BIG deal.
So how to insult Democrats as Commies without the need for evidence that they actually were Commies? The trick was to make Dems out as Commie sympathizers... which a good number of them like Veep Henry A Wallace were. Not actual Stalin-worshipping Reds but close on the rainbow scale: Pinko sympathizers (such as Nixon accusing his Senate opponent in 1950 of being "pink down to her underwear."). Thus came the word 'socialist' as the insult to be aimed at Democrats.
On the political scale - Fascism to the far right, Pragmatic Moderatism (usually represented as modern Capitalism) in the middle, Communism to the far left - Socialism is between the Moderate and the Communist. Socialism basically is where the government nationalizes the means of production, and regulates to the point of absolute control nearly every social service ('rationing') available to the nation. It's more open than Communism in that the people retain purchasing power, some level of individual wealth, and access to various means of financing not related to production. Not every business and industry was nationalized. But the point of Socialism is to try and enforce some kind of social equilibrium: everyone get a fair share of the pie, whether they earned it or not. That usually meant a form of "Taking from the rich to give to the poor," creating a welfare state where the state ends up providing the bare minimum of incentive and motivation of using capital... creating a kind of unemployed malaise and cultural stagflation that noticeably hit Western Europe from the 60s until the Thatcherist years of privitization of the 80s re-opened the floodgates of capitalism.
It never got as bad in the United States as it did in Europe, mostly because 'socialism' remained a bad word. LBJ's Great Society was the closest we would come to a welfare state, which didn't even have as high a tax rate as the post-FDR years did to pay for it all. Nixon, Ford, and Carter's terms of the 1970s didn't see much other than a series of massive energy crises and growing inflation, to which I'm not sure if any movement towards socialism had a role. I can be certain the pro-business anti-communist years of Reagan ended that for good. Even Clinton eventually reformed our nation's welfare system (the grand nail tying the Great Society together) into a more work-oriented re-employment system.
Combine that with the collapse of Communism between 1989 to 1991 (leaving pretty much Cuba as the notable openly-Communist state left, unless I'm forgetting someone from Africa or Asia), and socialism (and even communism) came and went in the United States like a brief unwanted fart.
So what does this all have to do with Obama?
To the Republicans, everything. Because the Republicans want to attack Obama non-stop, and they need all the words-as-a-weapon they can get.
It doesn't matter if you look at Obama's actual record of activity since he got into the White House 3 months ago. The fact that Obama's current tax plan actually LOWERED taxes for 95 percent of Americans doesn't concern Republicans. The fact that Obama's next step regarding taxes is to allow Bush's tax rates to expire AS SCHEDULED by 2010-11 doesn't concern Republicans. The fact that a majority of Americans are at the point for the first time in decades thinking their taxes are "fair enough" doesn't concern Republicans. The fact that Obama's current economic plans for bailing out the economy and combatting the recession are so universally acknowledged as needed that even the Republican Governors trying to refuse the stimulus money are being forced by their own state Leges to accept the funding doesn't concern Republicans. They just see a Democrat, and to them a Democrat is a tax-and-spend liberal who threatens to bring about socialism to this country, no matter what he does to improve a shaky economy, no matter how well he actually does his job.
So they toss out that word - "Socialist" - like it means something. Like it's a weapon of lethal efficiency.
But it doesn't mean anything. Not in the way it used to. And especially not to the up-and-coming generations coming into political power of their own. Which is what should be worrying the Republican Party leadership, but isn't.
This is the 20-year mark of 1989: the year people recognized that Communist nations like China and the Soviet Union had redesigned their economic structures closer to capitalism than communism. That year, Eastern Europe fell in its own Domino Effect as one Communist regime after another collapsed, leading up to the Fall of the Berlin Wall itself. Side note: I was nineteen years old at the time, and believe me I never saw a more joyous moment in all my life than watching on TV as everyone who could danced on the Wall that night of November 9th. Personally, I miss the Berlin Wall: it was the one place you could have legally left graffiti, and I never got a chance to do so...
This is the 18-year mark of 1991: the year that saw a post-Cold War struggle in the Persian Gulf akin to the Korean War, an international effort led by the U.S. to stop the Iraqs from seizing Kuwait, in which our old Cold War adversaries the Soviets sat on the sidelines watching a proxy army (Iraqs armed with their gear) get clobbered in under 40 days. And then that August, the last gasp of a Communist regime trying at one more political coup, a half-hearted effort to oust Gorbachev and stop his dismantling of Soviet ideals. It failed, spectacularly. The only thing the coup did achieve was removing Gorbachev... five months later after the coup itself collapsed. By then the Soviet Union had fractured, Russia replacing the behemoth and essentially signaling the end of Communism. We could joke, then and now, that Communism failed "because there was no money in it."
These are key things when considering the massive generational shift going on in American politics, wherein a younger generation of voters are coming in... and are decidedly coming in on the side of the Democrats.
We are getting, right now with this year's set of 18-year-olds, the first generation of college students and the first generation of voting age that DOES NOT KNOW THE COLD WAR on any personal level. When they were born, Gorbachev was on his way out. The United States was the sole superpower on the planet with any conceivable military, economic, political, and cultural mojo. Cuba was this island off of Florida with a constant supply of decent baseball players swimming over, with a graying old man in charge who could be viewed more as a run-of-the-mill dictator than a Communist propangandist. Okay? We're talking about the first generation ever who learned about Communism IN THE PAST TENSE. Trust me, from my memories of high school history studies: Anything older than ten years in the history books is ANCIENT HISTORY. This is a generation of 18-year-olds who grew up learning how COMMUNISM FAILED. To them, it's not a threat. It's not even a joke. It just... is. Like fuedalism, or mercantilism, it's just things to study. How can you terrify a generation with the boogeyman specter of "Socialism" when they've never even experienced it?
And that's the 18-year-olds. The 28-year-olds were all 10 years old when they saw Communism collapse. They grew up with Reagan and Thatcher as paragons of virile capitalism, and even they watched an economic system fail and sputter to death. Think any of them are frightened by Communism? And try my generation: the 38-year-olds. Generation X, that's us. We were in college watching Communism fail, and we even studied and learned the Hows and Whys, and understood what it meant. While a majority of us went conservative in our leanings as we grew up and grew out, we too learned that Communism was a failure. Hell, we even know Socialism - as we were the generation that grew up in the social decay and destruction of a failed Great Society plan - was inconceivable, a joke.
Generation X grew up as the Soviet Union fell, as Communist China changed to capitalism. Yes, we are the generation that grew up with "Rambo," with "Rocky IV," with non-stop replays of "Red Dawn" on HBO. But my generation - well at least the guys I grew up with - didn't take half of that sh-t seriously. I remember a bunch of us catching "Red Dawn" on TV one weekend, and we chortled watching a bunch of fellow "teenagers" (who looked ten years older than us) take on the whole Red Army. And watching C. Thomas Howell turn into a gun-toting, deer-blood-drinking psycho was scary only in that we saw this guy turn into basically a psycho, not someone worth emulating. 'Course, To us it was a movie. Hell, the whole Cold War was a movie, or a video game (and sometimes both): in which detente was preferable to war, in which we still saw the self-destructive impulses of Communism (its inability to stop Greed as an economic drain onr resources) as a failing system, in which the only real difference between Us and Them was that they drank vodka and we drank whiskey (or scotch). My generation may know Socialism, but it doesn't scare us. We know better.
And that leaves the generation above us, the Baby Boomers. The ones now in charge of things, the age of the political leaders of both parties, but in particular the Republican Party. Note: Obama himself, born 1961, is on the tail end of the Boomers for whom the cutoff year is 1965. Those born near the Generational shifts tend to share traits of the preceeding or following generation, so Obama shares some traits with Gen-Xers, noticeably a love of basketball. For the Boomers, and the older Generations (the Silent, ones caught between Boomers and those who won the Great War, and the Greatest Generation who grew up in the Depression and fought the Big Fight That Saved Everybody), Socialism is indeed a Big Deal. They came of age at the start of the Cold War, with Stalin slamming down an Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe and reneging on the power-sharing arrangements in demilitarizing a Post-War Germany. They grew up with a Socialized Western Europe, an increasingly moody and out-of-sorts France and England with large tax systems that drove out wealthy rock stars on an annual basis. To them, Socialism if not Communism is a threat and a problem, and they worry about it like the hybrid navigators on the re-imagined Battlestar "This has all happened before and it can all happen again."
So now we have a very noticeable generation shift: the party elders who knew and fear Socialism; and younger generations coming of age and power who don't know Socialism or else saw Socialism fail and have no fear of it.
And you see the results: younger voters are aligning with Obama by 66 percent, with the 18-29 age group making 18 percent of the voting bloc. And those numbers will go up as they grow older and as more of their generation gets interested in voting. And this generation - the Millenials - are NOT as socially conservative as their elders, not even Gen'Xers who tend to be libertarian-leaning on social issues. To the Millenials, all they've known is a capitalistic system that grew corrupt and corpulent, taking billions in tax cuts during the Bush years and now coming BEGGING to Obama for billions more in bailouts. To the Millenials, they can't comprehend the level of hatred Ayn Rand had for Communism that would have pushed her to create a socio-political movement out of Objectivism: to this generation, "Atlas Shrugged" is a boring book they had to read in AP English.
And all the Republicans do is point at Obama and yell "Socialist!" They can't even effectively describe what it is Obama is doing that's Socialist, other than the massive spending, and as I mentioned earlier this article, THAT'S THE ONLY THING KEEPING OUR CAPITALIST ECONOMY ALIVE. And the younger generations are gonna look at Obama and think "If that's a Socialist, and we like him, then hell we're Socialists too!" Just the word alone - "Socialist" - it doesn't scare people anymore.
So whenever you hear a Republican say it, someone on FOXNews repeating it, someone writing a Beltway screed against Obama, whenever they bring up the word "socialist," you could consider some level of pity, or sympathy, for those guys. They're trying to hurt Obama the best way they can, the only word they and their aging out-of-touch generation knows.
They're just using a word that doesn't mean what it means anymore.
Today, by the by, was a big day for the anti-Obama forces because they were pushing a huge Tea Bag Revolt across the nation, all 50 states, trying to rally their massive forces of conservative angst to show how they are opposed to Obama raising taxes and spending like a Democrat (which does, of course, beg the question of WHERE THESE F-CKERS WERE WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH WAS SPENDING LIKE A DEMOCRAT). Did not see much in the way of explanation of the Hows and Wheres and Whys of Obama being an evil overlord of doom. He just is to the Far Right. No one yet complaining about Obama's shoelaces, but the year is still young...