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5 commonly misunderstood words to know before you vote

Ahead of Super Tuesday, many candidates have frequently used buzzwords to describe their positions, or their opponents have used them to cast doubt. However, many of these words as we commonly use and understand them are not actually the correct definition. 

Eric Fattor, a professor at Colorado State University in the political science department specializing in international politics, security studies and political theory, explained the actual definition of five commonly used but commonly misunderstood words. 


1. Socialism

Fattor clarified that socialism is not communism. While the two are frequently used interchangeably, they are separate entities.

Instead, Fattor said socialism is not a political theory, but rather an economic system, whereas communism is solely political.

“Socialism simply means that in terms of production, the workers make the key decisions in the productive output of the economy,” Fattor said. “When you call someone a socialist in an attempt to impugn their politics, you are using inaccurate or inappropriate or imprecise language.”

In layman’s terms, a socialist wants market decisions to be made by the workers, whereas a capitalist wants market decisions to be made by those who own the means of production, Fattor said.

2. Democratic socialist

Since socialism is an economic ideology as opposed to a political one, a variety of political theories can coexist with it. Fattor explained that to some socialists, communism is the ultimate goal. However, that requires a revolution of the workers seizing power.

According to a 2019 article from The New York Times, democratic socialists fall in between communism and social democracy; they don’t support capitalism, they want workers to control the means of production and they believe socialism should be achieved democratically with a long-term outlook. 

Democratic socialists do not want communism, but Fattor said they are using the mechanisms of democracy to empower the working class. The best way to do this was to form a socialist party and get members elected to make constitutional or legislative changes.

“Basically, (democratic socialists want to) have the state facilitate the turnover of the nation’s economy to the workers rather than destroying the state and having the workers take over the revolution,” Fattor said.

3. Liberal 

Liberalism actually originates from the 19th century. It means that you’re actually an advocate for freedom. You believe in free markets, you believe in a restricted government, you believe in civil liberties and that sort of thing,” -Eric Fattor, political science professor, CSU

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, liberalism is “a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market and the gold standard,” and it is “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race and the autonomy … of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.”


Fattor clarified that the general, widespread understanding of someone who is politically liberal is entirely misinterpreted. While there are four or five different definitions, the original definition of a liberal is far closer to people’s understanding of a conservative.

“Liberalism actually originates from the 19th century,” Fattor said. “It means that you’re actually an advocate for freedom. You believe in free markets, you believe in a restricted government, you believe in civil liberties and that sort of thing.”

The current divide between conservative and liberal people can be better understood in different words. Fattor explained that a conservative is someone who wants to preserve the status quo as much as possible, and a liberal wants to use the power of the state to correct past prejudices.

Fattor called it ironic that people who are conservatives are actually liberals, as they believe in free markets, and liberals calling for state intervention is sort of the opposite of a liberal.

4. Libertarian

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a libertarian as someone who “upholds the principles of individual liberty, especially of thought and action” and “an advocate of the doctrine of free will.”

Libertarianism refers to the idea of restraining the powers of government as much as possible, Fattor said. While people commonly think of libertarians on the right end of the political spectrum, that is a very narrow view.

A right-leaning libertarian would feel that the government should interfere as little as possible in the economy and, to a lesser extent, with the civil liberties of individuals, Fattor said.

Fattor explained that left-leaning libertarians argue the government shouldn’t interfere with civil liberties and self-expression, but because human nature requires basic necessities, the state should provide such necessities.

“This gets to things like providing healthcare, providing food stamps, providing welfare payments because freedom doesn’t mean very much if you’re always hungry, if you’re worried about getting sick, if you don’t know how to read or write,” Fattor said.

5. Independent 

Independents are people who did not check the box to register with a particular party on their voter registration, Fattor said. 

Fattor explained that registering as an independent simply means that person doesn’t identify with a particular party or ideology. That being said, that does not mean the voter themselves does not lean toward a particular party identification.

“A lot of people who claim to be independent will, in fact, align themselves usually 90% with a particular ideology or votes 90% of the time with a political party,” Fattor said, further explaining that independents simply don’t identify as a member of a particular party.

Meagan Stackpool can be reached at or on Twitter @MeaganStackpool.

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