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Cokie Roberts On The History Of Socialism In U.S. Politics


With the backstory of socialism in America - it used to be there was nearly always a prominent presidential candidate running on the Socialist ticket. Starting in 1928, that candidate was Norman Thomas, who ran six times for president. In 1961, he was still debating the importance of socialism.


NORMAN THOMAS: We are socialists because we believe we live now in a world that requires a great deal of thoughtful planning ahead of time - that the great purpose of life is to manage our resources for the common good.

INSKEEP: That was more than half a century ago. But socialism has re-entered the political debate this year. Republicans, led by President Trump, are denouncing opponents as socialists. And the Democratic Party has some prominent Democratic socialists in or near its ranks, like Bernie Sanders. So let's ask Cokie about the history of socialism in America. Cokie Roberts joins us regularly to talk about how the government and politics work.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: There was a lot of listener response to this question, so let's get right to the first.

JEREMY DARROW: This is Jeremy Darrow from Nashville, Tenn. Has the term socialism always been used pejoratively by opponents of social programs in America?

ROBERTS: Well, you could get a healthy debate going about whether people who say they are against socialism are also against social programs. But the official Socialist Party enjoyed a heyday in the U.S. in the early 20th century. The man generally credited for founding the party, Eugene Debs, received 900,000 votes for president in 1912. And there were socialists elected to local offices in many cities.

But with World War I came the Red Scare, the crackdown on anti-war activists. And when Debs received his greatest number of votes for president in 1920, he was jailed for promoting resistance to the draft.

INSKEEP: Wow. But socialist ideas remained out and about - part of the progressive movement. Let's listen to that.

SAM ROBINSON: This is Sam Robinson from Oakland, Calif. How important was socialist activism and organized labor in pushing lawmakers and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt toward the creation of the social welfare framework that we, well, sort of still have today?

ROBERTS: Well, lots of different elements pushed the passage of laws like Social Security and unemployment insurance. The main thing, of course, Steve, was the fact of the Great Depression.


ROBERTS: But the activism of the left certainly informed FDR's actions, along with the populism of Huey Long. The president, who was, by the way, always accused of being a socialist, moved more and more boldly to use the federal government to solve problems. At the beginning of his term, he just asked Congress to send money to the states to enhance their social welfare programs. But it wasn't enough to deal with the depression.

INSKEEP: Our next question is about what states have done.

DANIELLE LEMON: My name is Danielle Lemon from Boulder, Colo. What socialist initiatives have historically been passed by states?

ROBERTS: Well, the first one was public education - schools established by and run by the government. Some people argue that state lotteries are a form of socialism. Then there's disaster relief. Many states had old-age pensions on the books before Social Security. Now our whole system of social welfare, with the exception of Social Security and Medicare, combines federal and state components.

INSKEEP: One more question here.

JIMMY THOMPSON: This is Jimmy Thompson from Greensboro, N.C. Could you help explain how Americans define socialism? Socialism seems to mean so many different things to so many different groups.

ROBERTS: There is confusion. The socialism/communism confusion, socialism/social-welfare confusion, socialism/democratic-socialism confusion - it reflects an ambivalence in the society. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, for example, fully three-quarters of independents and moderates expressed discomfort with the idea of socialism. But a majority said the government should do more to help people in need. Is that socialism? It's in the eyes of the beholder, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts - and you can ask Cokie your questions about politics and the government by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.