Capitol Words: Socialism


What’s that word, you know, from the 1980s, that you’ve been hearing congressmen say all the time? It refers to some ideological position… Anarcho-syndicalism? Antidisestablishmentarianism? Suburban postmoderism? Oh wait, socialism! That’s right, socialism, the word, is back in use on the floor of Congress. Let’s take a spin through the Congressional Record — via Capitol Words and THOMAS — to see how the use of the word socialism has changed in Congress over time.


Currently, the word socialism is finding use as a way to deride any piece of the agenda of the majority Democrats. Health care reform. Socialism! Energy reform. Socialism! Bailouts. Socialism! Democrats. Democrat Socialists! Whether you agree with this assessment of these policies, it is clear that this has become the standard line of attack for opponents of President Obama when vituperative attacks are pursued.

While Capitol Words can take us back to 2001, the real interesting information comes if we look even further back. One measure of use that can be judged only through THOMAS, the Library of Congress’ congressional research engine, is the number of pages that the word shows up on, rather than the number for actual word use. Currently, for the 111th Congress (2009-2010), there are 80 pages where the word socialism is used. The chart to the left shows how many pages contain the word socialism for the past eleven Congresses.

Congressional Record Pages Referencing Socialism
111th Congress 80 (so far)
110th Congress 66
109th Congress 41
108th Congress 47
107th Congress 53
106th Congress 67
105th Congress 69
104th Congress 96
103rd Congress 117
102nd Congress 190
101st Congress 181

What emerges when looking at the use of the word over these years is the changing nature of its use. Back in 1989 to 1992, the use of socialism as a word almost exclusively refers to socialist, or communist, regimes or movements. The U.S.S.R., Cuba, China, denunciations of socialism in South Africa and Latin America, and so on. The period in question, 1989-1992, is when socialism and communism collapsed across the globe with Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution.

The ensuing, post-communist period provides a very different use of the word socialism in Congress. While this use showed up every now and again, it became a prominent feature for two important years. The years 1993-1994 were the first two years of President Clinton’s term. Clinton was the first Democrat in office in 12 years and his opponents took quick aim at his policies, a new budget and a health care plan, as socialism. While the number of pages that the word appears on in this period is down sharply from the period where communism existed, it is still over 100 pages. In 1994, Republicans swept Congress, taking the House and Senate from the Democrats.

In the years following, after two more years of relatively heavy use of the word socialism (96 pages from 1995-1996), the word use petered out and became less about the socialism of the Democratic Party and more about Cuba, Venezuala, and other socialist movements in Africa or Latin America.

But now, much like in the first two years of Clinton’s presidency, socialism is a hot word slipping off the lips of congressmen at an unprecedented pace. (Not sure about the early 20th century and late 19th century Congresses when there were actually real socialists here in the States with increasing political power.) Clearly, the use of the word socialism is both a political tactic to increase fears about the platform and policies of an opponent and the real view of those policies among certain segments of the population. The increasing use, and type of use, of the word shows that the word socialism tracks domestic political developments regarding power shifts between the two parties.