The 2020 election debate has burst into flames, pitting Americans against Americans. “Socialism” is the fuel. Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialism” generates Donald Trump’s fiery “America will never be a socialist nation!” Followers trumpet, “Freedom is on the line!”

Truth is, it’s a phony war.

In 1917 Lenin’s Marxist-socialists seized power in Russia and called for an international working class revolution. Colonialists and capitalists took the threat seriously and tried to, in Winston Churchill’s words, “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib.” Failing, they blockaded the Soviet Union economy, fueling Stalin’s horrific dictatorship.

World War II, launched by fascist Germany, brought imperialist England, communist Russia, and capitalist United States into a world-saving wartime alliance. But with victory, hostility re-emerged in 44 years of Cold War.

Until its 1991 collapse, Soviet Russia was the seen in America as The Enemy. Its containment, physically and ideologically, became the epicenter of our nation’s focus, replacing the New Deal’s pivotal debate about the best balance of public and private institutions to achieve Americans’ human and economic rights. The hyper-intense 1950s Red Scare branded socialism and communism the same. With racist fascism’s lethal threat quickly forgotten, “socialism” became the bogeyman.

Demagogues love that: They can divide Americans with a false fight and simultaneously divert us from discussing the real issue — America’s disastrous concentration of wealth and power in the Super Rich and corporations, and what we, the people, need to do about that.

Socialism’s 1800s European birth resulted from brutal conditions imposed on working families. In 1850 England, life expectancy was 39. After World War II, British voters ousted the Conservatives and elected a socialist government. It nationalized coal mines and mills, airlines and banks, an experiment lasting 30 years. Throughout the Cold War, European countries remained America’s allies — while implementing major socialist programs, which ebb and flow in popularity. But government-funded health care for every citizen, generous unemployment benefits and free education remain, foundations of non-Marxist socialism.

Marx considered public ownership of land the cornerstone of socialism. Since the government’s 827,000 square-mile 1803 Louisiana Purchase, major parts of America have been public/socialist. Today local, state and federal governments own about one-third of the nation’s land. In Montana 37% is public/socialist. Access to and use of these lands is not controlled by capitalist for-profit corporations, but by a democratically-elected “socialist” government.

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America’s navigable rivers are legally designated as public/socialist property, accessible to all. So is our treasured wildlife, owned by we the people, not private, for-profit interests.

The socialist nature of public land, water and wildlife is precisely why they are criticized by “pro-free market” think tanks and politicians, and why some states’ Republican Party platforms urged privatization until fierce opposition by hunters, anglers, bikers and hikers forced the privatizers into tactical retreat.

Our public schools and universities, and yes, our military, firefighting and police forces, are also socialist institutions. The people who staff and manage these government functions do not work for personal or company profit, but serve vital public interests. As a conservative think tank director and Navy veteran said to me: “Of course the military’s socialist. We just don’t say it.”

Social Security and Medicare are government mandated and managed programs which lifted senior citizens from the most poverty prone age group to the least. When proposed, both were accurately labeled as socialism by critics. In 1961 Ronald Reagan famously attacked the proposed Medicare program as “socialized medicine” and an assault on Americans’ basic freedoms. He was right about the socialist part.

In America private/capitalist and public/socialist structures exist side by side, usually in cooperation, sometimes in competition. Each has positive and negative aspects, and both are capable of abusing their power. The honorable, real discussion we Americans need is how much, and where, capitalist and socialist institutions (and private nonprofit) best serve our country.

But unprincipled politicians want to divide us into warring camps by shouting the battle cry: Socialism? Never!

Then they go fishing on socialist streams.

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Attorney Brian Kahn, of Helena, directs the Montana nonprofit, Artemis Common Ground: Good for People, Good for the Land.