The 2016 democratic primaries unleashed a national wave of interest in socialism. Since then, 55,000 Americans have joined the Democratic Socialists of America, and millions more have voted for socialist politicians. But socialism is plagued by conflicting definitions. Is socialism dictatorship or democracy? Norway or Venezuela? Reform or revolution?

The film centers around two key characters. Stephanie is a single mother struggling to climb out of debt with her job as an Oklahoma public school teacher; Lee is a bright-eyed ex-Marine who believes he can change his Virginia state legislature’s priorities. Living in different parts of the country, Stephanie and Lee find themselves in similar situations: broke and unable to sustain their livelihoods through their jobs. Both turn to socialism, a once-fringe ideology, to tackle problems larger than themselves.

Feeling voiceless and neglected, Stephanie and her fellow teachers decide to go on strike. Empowered by the success of the teacher strikes across the country, Stephanie realizes the full potential of a mass strike to change policy and affect people’s lives. She is determined to use her new-found voice for change.

After an injury at work leaves Lee unemployed and without workers compensation, Lee decides to run for state legislature to advocate for workers like him. Against all odds, he beats the Republican incumbent to become the lone socialist in Virginia’s State Assembly. But the real fight is getting his bills, many of which center around workers’ rights, onto the floor. For both Lee and Stephanie, the fight for more control over their lives, be it better pay or a safe working environment, is a common sense solution to their everyday problems.

Our characters believe that improvements for Americans can only come through a dramatic restructuring of the economy, and they have come to call that restructuring socialism. The Trump presidency and the extreme state of wealth inequality in our nation have made it clear to the majority that our current “democracy” is devastatingly undemocratic. Increasingly, many Americans are wondering if capitalism itself is the problem. Might capitalism and democracy, the two faces of American exceptionalism, be at odds?

THE BIG SCARY “S” WORD explores the rich history of the American socialist movement and journeys with the people striving to build a socialist future for our country. Weaving together hidden episodes of history, verité footage, and lively animated sequences, the film engages with both our present and past to show that, contrary to popular belief, socialism is in fact deeply American. Historians walk us from the socialist-led early labor movements through the New Deal to show how mass mobilization brought about some of our most popular government programs, like public school and Medicare. Archival montage reflects on the 2008 crash, the Wall Street bailout, and the Occupy Movement. Activists and journalists explain how these events pushed a new generation to embrace the language of socialism.

Ultimately, this film imagines what a renewed American socialism might look like, voiced directly from today’s thought leaders, including Cornel West, Vivek Chibber, Naomi Klein, and active members of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

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