From ominous speeches to political message bills, the specter of socialism is haunting the Utah Legislature this session.
“Frankly, I’ve been disturbed by some of the rising generation’s fascination with socialism,” Gov. Gary Herbert warned in his State of the State speech during the first week of the session, citing civil unrest in Venezuela as an example of socialism’s deficiencies.
Frightened by what they view as a resurgent political and economic ideology, Utah Republicans have taken the offensive.
U.S. Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah’s 2nd District announced late last month the formation of an Anti-Socialism Caucus. In an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune, Stewart wrote that he created the group “to educate the American people and lawmakers why socialist policies and programs ultimately end up hurting the very people they purport to help.”
“For the first time maybe in my lifetime we’re having a serious conversation about ‘Is socialism an alternative for us?’” he said during a visit to the Utah Legislature last Friday. ”Do people want to walk down that path?”
Stewart is hardly alone in this sentiment. A handful of bills from state lawmakers this session have references, both subtle and overt, to socialism and its distant cousin: communism.
A Modern Red Scare?
A resolution from Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, designates Nov. 7 as Victims of Communism Memorial Day following a proclamation in 2017 by President Donald Trump. The model legislation came to Kristofferson by way of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an association of conservative state lawmakers, to remind the public of atrocities committed by communist regimes throughout history.
“Hopefully [this bill] keeps us steered away from even other philosophies that lead us there such as socialism,” Christofferson told a House legislative committee.
Another bill by Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, would require an update to the state’s financial literacy course, required for K-12 students, to include economics lessons on command systems such as socialism or communism as well as market systems such as capitalism.
“The question is: Is there a correlation as you move from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of economic growth? I believe there is a correlation,” Moss said.
Democrats futilely attempted to push back on the bill during floor debate, arguing, among other things, the bill uses communism and socialism interchangeably.
“I’m wary of any kind of ideological bill that puts in place, with disparagement, some terms and holds up other terms for uncritical adulation,” said Minority Leader Brian King.
The Salt Lake Democrat said he’s perplexed by the onslaught of anti-socialist rhetoric from his colleagues this year. He’s called Stewart’s op-ed and its ilk a “cute talking point” and has encouraged members of his caucus to push back when appropriate.
“I think it’s red meat thrown to the base,” King said.
King said he’s had spirited discussions with conservative lawmakers and the governor over the issue, pointing to water, sewer, public safety and public schools as examples of the country’s mixed economic system.
“There are many, many things that we take for granted that are wonderful and we wouldn’t live without that are purely socialistic,” he said.
Socialist and Proud
Salt Lake’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter boasts over 300 members. It’s a modest number, but still a marked increase from just before the Nov. 2018 election when self-proclaimed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez triumphed in her bid in New York’s 14th Congressional District.
Freeman Stevenson, 25, is a member of the local group and describes himself as more of a Marxist socialist focused on the “democratization of the means of production.”
He’s noticed the frenzy on the right and welcomes the attention.
“If they’re reacting like this, then we’re doing our job. You’re getting pointed legislation against socialism, but you’re also getting more DSA members getting elected to state and local governments,” he said.
Although conservatives paint socialists with a broad brush, most of what they’re criticizing are progressive policies that propose government solutions to things like rising health care costs and student loan debt, Stevenson said. He added that the other big misconception about their group is that they’re all college-age and unemployed.
“We’re not 18-year-olds. We’re in our mid-20s, early 30s. We work for a living, and working in late-stage capitalism is a much more radicalizing experience than college campuses,” he said.
Stevenson said the reactions of Rep. Chris Stewart and others to working class people starting to organize around these issues is telling in and of itself — and underlies what he sees as a hollow attempt to conjure up opposition.
But for West Jordan Republican Ken Ivory, socialism is not just a talking point. It’s a reality that Utah is already facing. The longtime lands-transfer advocate said public lands, of which Utah is mostly comprised, are a form of socialism.
“We can’t control where people live, where they commute. We can’t control about the air quality because 67 percent of our land is not ours to control within our own state,” he said.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. last weekend, speakers, including President Trump, underlined that they intend to make the 2020 race a contest pitting free markets versus socialism.
Polling shows it could be effective. Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans react positively to the term socialism, according to a new NBC News and Wall Street Journal survey. However, the same poll found more than half of respondents think the government should do more to solve their problems.
Mixed signals could be an opportunity for nascent democratic socialists like Stevenson, who says it’s a term people have been misusing for decades.
“If you listen to Fox News, we’ve been a socialist country for, like, 25 years,” Stevenson said. “It’s catching the attention of the establishment, which in a way means we’re doing good.”