In this Pennsylvania swing county, ‘socialism’ is a hot topic

Why We Wrote This

People had strong opinions about socialism when our reporter went to Pennsylvania to ask them what they thought. But the more they talked, the more common ground he found.

Charles Krupa/AP
Jon Torsch wears a T-shirt promoting democratic socialism during a gathering of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America at City Hall in Portland, Maine, July 16, 2018. On the ground in dozens of states, there is new evidence that democratic socialism is taking hold as a force in Democratic politics.

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The term “socialism” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people – from a social safety net or universal access to health care to the chaos in present-day Venezuela.

Both President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have turned warnings about socialism into a persistent refrain this summer. By calling Democrats “communists,” they’re counting on being able to tap into the deep suspicion of socialism harbored by many Americans.

Americans have actually been warming more to the concept, with 4 out of 10 now embracing some form of socialism, according a Gallup poll in May. Not surprisingly, the shift has been deeply partisan.

Yet moving beyond the label reveals a surprising amount of common ground. For example, many supporters of President Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders agree that unrestrained global capitalism, dominated by large corporations, has hurt American workers.

“Older concerns about socialism that have long held sway still hold today,” says Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. But “as you start to scratch a little bit deeper ... you can actually see considerable willingness on the part of folks to want an expansion of certain functions in government.” 

Sitting over breakfast at the Nazareth Diner, a 24-hour haunt just down the street from the old white silos of the landmark Nazareth concrete plant, Charles Yellak and his old friend Dave Arbey are talking about socialism – and the Democrats who support it.

“It’s a bad idea,” says Mr. Yellak, a Vietnam veteran and retired utility worker who spent decades with PPL Electric, the local power company. “It’s not right for America.”

“To a person in their 20s, I’m sure it sounds great,” adds Mr. Arbey, a former electrical supervisor at a Bell & Howell plant producing mailing and labeling machines. “But you go out and work for a living, and you’ll find out socialism’s not so great, giving all your money away to somebody that’s going to stay home.”

Just 15 minutes away, at the Terra Cafe, which features the edgy work of local artists in downtown Easton, Elizabeth Pecota calls herself “a firm believer.”

“You’re looking at a pretty full-blown socialist,” the retired middle school history teacher says. “There just needs to be a more equal distribution among the people.”

“It’s the top 1 or 2% of big businesses that’s getting all the wealth,” agrees her friend Gypsy Lysgaard, sipping a café latte. “The middle class isn’t really middle class anymore.”

Ms. Pecota acknowledges that, as recently as 10 years ago, socialism “was absolutely a dirty word, and never really taken seriously as an option.” Yet today the term, and how each party defines it, is becoming a central question of the 2020 election. And as the two conversations show, it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people – from a social safety net or universal access to health care to the chaos in present-day Venezuela.

Both President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have turned warnings about socialism into a persistent refrain this summer. By calling progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez communists, political observers say, they’re counting on being able to tap into the deep suspicion of socialism harbored by many Americans like those in the diner.

As a whole, though, Americans have been warming more to the concept, with 4 out of 10 now embracing some form of socialism, according a Gallup poll in May.

Not surprisingly, the shift has been deeply partisan. Since 2010, a majority of Democrats have begun to view socialism in a positive light, including 57% in a 2018 Gallup poll, and 65% in a Pew Research survey in June, which included Democratic-leaning independents. At the same time, fewer Democrats now say they have a positive view of capitalism, according to Gallup, a minority of 47%, down from 56% of those polled in 2016.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A supporter of President Donald Trump waves to passing drivers during a roadside sign-waving rally in Clearwater, Florida, May 15, 2019.

By contrast, an overwhelming majority of Republicans, some 84%, express negative views about socialism, according to Pew and other surveys, while nearly 8 in 10 express positive views about capitalism.

A microcosm of the U.S.

It’s a divide that matters a lot here in Northampton County, known locally as “NorCo,” and encompassing much of the Lehigh Valley, once one of the mightiest industrial regions in the world. Nestled halfway between the metropolitan regions of Philadelphia and New York City, NorCo is a kind of microcosm of the nation, with artsy urban areas, boom suburbs, and conservative rural swaths. The town of Easton, the county seat, nearly mirrors the country’s demographics as a whole. 

It was one of three “pivot counties” in Pennsylvania that voted twice for Barack Obama and then switched in 2016 to Mr. Trump, who won Pennsylvania by less than 1%. Many political observers consider it one of the most important bellwether regions in the country – and a place where impressions of the Democratic Party’s growing ranks of democratic socialists might play a key role in 2020.

“Trying to cast a lot of progressive policies as socialist or even communist, I think, is still a significant strategic approach on the part of Republicans right now, because in places like this, there’s still reticence and concern about government overreach and the government becoming too intrusive,” says Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown and director of its Institute of Public Opinion. “Those older concerns about socialism that have long held sway still hold today in a place like this.” 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at George Washington University in Washington, June 12, 2019, on democratic socialism, the economic philosophy that has guided his political career.

Yet as a resident of Nazareth himself and a longtime observer of Pennsylvania politics, Professor Borick says that despite the deep divides on the surface, views of socialism here are in fact “a little bit more nuanced, depending on how you broadly define the policies you’re talking about.” 

“As you start to scratch a little bit deeper ... you can actually see considerable willingness on the part of folks to want an expansion of certain functions in government,” he continues. 

Common ground

Mr. Arbey brings up the Democratic debates back in June, and many of the men at the diner express incredulity at the “way out there” socialist idea of Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, the businessman and entrepreneur who’s proposed a “universal basic income” of $1,000 a month for every American age 18 or older. Of course, it’s an idea that has also been proposed by conservative libertarians such as sociologist Charles Murray and even one of the foundational economic thinkers on the right, Friedrich Hayek. 

Yet a lot of the men admit that there’s something “socialistic” about programs such as Medicare, which they support. “I’m not against people buying in,” says Mr. Yellak. “I mean, you need insurance, and people that don’t have insurance, that’s going to sound really good to them.”

“Even your Social Security is a socialist kind of plan,” he adds. “Yeah, I don’t think you’re ever going to have a total government without some kind of social program – and I’m not against helping people that need it.”

Ms. Lysgaard, on the other hand, stresses that there is an important place for competition in the economy. “Seeing what has been happening, global capitalism disturbs me,” says Ms. Lysgaard, a Unitarian Universalist who practices Buddhism. “But competition is good; competition between people in the workplace, between businesses and products to an extent – and having a good work ethic, it’s so important.”

Her friend Ms. Pecota agrees: “But there needs to be [less] focus on big business and corporations and more on smaller companies and local businesses.”

Indeed, this is one area where the views of many supporters of Mr. Trump and those of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders often overlap. Unrestrained global capitalism, dominated by large corporations, has hurt American workers, both sides agree. And the government needs to intervene to promote local economies and businesses, and protect the American worker. 

Pollsters note that while many Americans express skepticism toward the general idea of socialism, their opinions about related policies are more complex. 

“We may be in a period of flux with how these economic systems are viewed,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey, in a statement about its survey in May. “Socialism still carries a stigma, but many Americans feel they are being left behind by the current capitalist system. Policies that have traditionally been seen as socialist may be getting more popular even if the term itself is not.” 

Democrats on a roll?

Since 2016, Democrats have been thrashing the GOP in local and statewide races here. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey both carried Northampton County by double-digit margins last year, and Susan Wild, a Democrat, won an open House seat covering the county, easily beating a moderate Republican.

But most of the men at Nazareth Diner say they’ll likely vote for Mr. Trump next November. And despite Democratic successes in the 2018 midterms, both parties are eyeing suburban moderates and independents who are wary about the Democrats’ drift toward socialism. Nearly 75% of these voters said they would be very uncomfortable with a candidate embracing the label socialist, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this year. 

Dennis Ciszeski, a left-leaning independent from Westampton, New Jersey, just across the Philadelphia border, says he thinks perspectives of socialism are changing, even among members of his generation. 

“We grew up in the ’80s,” says Mr. Ciszeski, a writer for an advertising firm. “When ‘socialism’ was being bandied about as un-American, along with the Red Scare and all that kind of stuff – those old perceptions from the ’50s.” 

He’s passing through Easton on the way home from vacation with his wife, Kristin Ciszeski, a project manager for a medical education company, and their 3-year-old son, Riley. “But it’s already in the American system,” Ms. Ciszeski says. “People don’t think about how many things, how many programs we already have that really are based around the concept of socialism.”  

But they also talk about the great convenience of businesses like Amazon and the wide-ranging virtues of competition and market-driven capitalism. 

“When we had our son, we were able to have a subscription service for when we needed diapers,” Mr. Ciszeski says. “They could be ordered and delivered to us – and there are jobs involved with that system.”

Both see a different definition of socialism emerging. Gallup findings bear this out: Nearly 1 in 4 Americans now associates the concept with social equality, with only 17% associating it with the classic definition of government control over the means of production.

“They’re rebranding right now, and a lot of people are saying that they’re ‘democratic socialists,’” says Mr. Ciszeski. “They don’t mean that they’re for a system that is totally controlled by the government, which then controls production, and then disperses everything to everybody else.”

He sees a way where both economic models “can coexist with each other,” he says. “You can have both – and then have a discourse on the ideas and the particular policies, and what to expand and what to hold the line without hating each other.”

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