To most Democrats, socialism means national health care, preschool for all, and a bevy of policies legislated by the federal government for the public good. To Republicans, socialism has a panoply of altogether different meanings, deep-seated and wrapped in guttural feelings. Feelings, Democrats would be wise to understand and appreciate.

To a significant group of Republicans, socialism is seen as a gateway to communism. Certainly, for those who have lived under the communist governments in Cuba and Venezuela, the emotional scars are deep. Any movement toward socialism for these people is perceived as entering a slippery slope. We saw this attitude clearly demonstrated in Miami. In a population that is 70 percent Hispanic or Latino, Donald Trump received very strong support.

The distinction between socialism, communism and the freedoms in socialist-democracies are lost for these voters. Cradle-to-grave government safety nets are seen as the opposite of individual responsibility. Socialism is perceived as totalitarian rule.

Government takeover is another, and perhaps strongest meaning of socialism to some Republicans. Powerful in that it awakens feelings of giveaways, irresponsibility, minority favoritism and a whole array of fears, perceived injustices and loss of personal identity. Socialism can be a Pavlovian bell that means “nanny state” to some.

In much of rural America, the federal government is bad. Individualism reigns. Individual rights and local rule are paramount. Socialism in their eyes is the opposite of personal responsibility.

We saw the pushback against perceived federal government intrusion play out most dramatically in those states with Republican governors during the COVID pandemic. Not wishing to offend the independent, more “I” oriented voters, who put them in office, these governors most often used “light touch” policies. They encouraged citizens and made recommendations but did little mandating of behavior.

A Wyoming official captured the tone when he said, “These are cowboys out here. When the government tells them to do something, they do the opposite.” Or as a Republican legislator in North Dakota commented after his state recorded the highest coronavirus rate in the country, people out here “are pretty much independent-minded about how they conduct their affairs.” To such voters, socialism runs counter to their sense of independence and fear of a deadly virus is less than their fear of federal intrusion.

Individualism and personal responsibility hold a strong, an almost religious, grip on the vast majority of those who voted for Donald Trump. They see their individual rights as sacrosanct and any intrusion upon them as un-American. Seventy-four million of them voted against what they perceived as socialistic views.

These values run deep. It’s hard to tell someone coming home from a difficult day’s work, who may be fighting to keep their family secure and together, that others will receive benefits without labor. Whether that is true or not, emotionally it’s a powerful message.

Among older white Americans, particularly men, socialist leanings are wrapped intricately into a welfare state that gives advantages to minorities. A common view is, “I worked my way out of poverty. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t take anything from the government or anyone else.” While liberals may immediately see this denial as White Privilege, conservative Trump supporters vehemently resist such labels. They believe their current “kind” behavior and intent toward people of color are fair. Arguments in favor of making America great again and against socialism can hide attitudes that appear racist to others but logical and fair to some.

Listen closely to the voice of the most ardent supporters of Donald Trump. Underlying their fervor is anger, martyrdom and a touch of fear. Fear that the country, and their own way of life, would be lost under government leadership that is moving toward socialism.

Thus one word, “socialism,” encompasses a multitude of attitudes, none linked to a single policy. But all with the thread of deeply felt values and, yes, fears.

In my home state of Georgia, political advertisements now cover our television screens. The dominant, and almost exclusive negative message labeling two Democrats running for the Senate, is that they are pushing a socialist agenda.

Win or lose, Democrats had better understand the power and the many meanings of this word, as well as the feelings and attitudes behind it, if they are to be competitive in the future.