Limiting inequalities is not a new idea in America, but many Americans believe that capitalism is their strong national identity, a perception that has remained since the Cold War.
For most Americans, the word “socialist” has negative connotations, and they cite Venezuela as proof of its failure. For socialism supporters, it offers a fairer system, and they point to its success in some Scandinavian countries. With 55% of Americans indicating in a Pew survey that they have a negative view of the word “socialism”, it is interesting to note their belief that it undermines work ethic and increases people’s reliance on government.
America had its first “Red Scare” just after World War 1. At the time anyone associated with socialism or communism was thought to be working for terrorist organizations, and many immigrants were even deported at the time. The government also kept a close watch on those fighting racial inequality.
By the 1930s, there was an increased interest in socialism. President Franklin Roosevelt was not a socialist, but believed in progressive reform and enacted a program of public works and created America’s social security system.
The image of capitalism grew in an effort started as far back as 1942 by industrialists, and it was supported by the American government. The War and Advertising Council was created by a group of executives from the world of industry and advertising to promote the war effort. The government offered tax deductions to the companies that spent money on ads or donated to the council.
After the war years the council, which had been renamed the Ad Council in 1943, continued to promote the virtues of capitalism and to demonize communism, including socialism. The council aimed to show the U.S. offered the opposite to what the U.S.S.R. and its allies stood for.
The end of WW2 brought further fear of communism for the government and industrialists. The government was worried about the spread of communism, and businesses were worried about how government policies would affect manufacturing. Also, unions were becoming increasingly popular.
A second campaign to root out communists was started in the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Communist sympathizers risked losing their jobs. The social and economic reforms started just before and continued during the war years were also phased out.
In the meantime, campaigns continued to promote the American model of capitalism reaching radio and TV audiences in a campaign called “The Miracle of America”. In her article in The National Interest, Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy reports that 1.84 million pamphlets from the campaign were distributed to factory workers, schools, and universities.
The idea that socialism undermines work ethic proliferated in the 1980s, and President Ronald Reagan ran his whole campaign on the evils of a welfare system. Socialism and its evils were ingrained into the consciousness of the average American.
Significant socialist reforms were attempted with the universal healthcare system, but successful socialist systems rely heavily on taxes. Those taxes must be used fairly to benefit everyone in the system, and that requires citizen trust to be implemented.
In a system that already embraces a mix of capitalism and socialism, Americans need to put old fears aside. This can help form a type of democratic socialism that can benefit all its citizens.