Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders defined his vision for democratic socialism in an address at George Washington University. The speech elicited mixed reactions from political reporters and scholars, several of whom questioned how Sanders had evoked socialism, and from some of Sanders’s Democratic rivals. When my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere told Senator Michael Bennet the title of the speech, “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism,” Bennet responded, “I don’t think the American people even know what that means.”
To John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, such debates about the use of the democratic-socialist label are a losing enterprise for everyone involved, because the American public doesn’t have a shared understanding of what socialism signifies. “When we’re talking about politics, especially today, with politics as urgent as it is, we can’t use terms for which we would have a hard time explaining the meanings,” he said Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
The problem isn’t just with democratic socialism, McWhorter said, but extends more broadly into how the American left refers to its politics. He argued that some words are too weighted with history, ambiguity, and disparaging associations to be a part of effective political communication. By using them, politicians, political commentators, and voters are consigning themselves to an unnecessary battle to clarify and defend their positions. He specifically cited two terms that American politicians should discard: Socialism is the first; the other is liberalism.