‘Socialist’ used to mean something

The latest national New York Times/CBS News poll has plenty of interesting tidbits, but reader J.F. flags some numbers I’d overlooked.

Way into the poll — page 26, question 85 — respondents were asked, “How would you mainly describe the policies Barack Obama has pursued as president — as socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or libertarian?” As near as I can tell, it’s pretty unusual for a major national poll to give respondents some of these choices.

Here’s what people had to say:

Socialist: 26%
Liberal: 22%
Moderate: 28%
Conservative: 6%
Libertarian: 4%
DK/NA: 15%

I suspect for some of President Obama’s critics on the left, the fact that nearly half the country perceives him as either a “liberal” or a “socialist” must be maddening.

But even putting that aside, it appears we’ve reached the point at which “socialist” has lost any of its meaning. No sane person could believe the president wants public control over the means of production and an end to modern capitalism. The notion that this reflects Obama’s ideology isn’t just wrong; it’s loony-tunes crazy.

The problem, though, is that Republican candidates and office-holders — who also don’t know what “socialist” means — have decided the “s” word is synonymous with “really liberal,” so they keep repeating the line over and over again. Some even seem to believe their own rhetoric.

Of course, “really liberal” also doesn’t apply to the president, making this that much more bizarre.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.