Last fall at a niece’s wedding, I had occasion to participate in a longstanding Lawton family tradition: the pre-nuptial obstacle race.

Adapted to each locale as needed, the affair includes putting grapefruit through croquet wickets with plastic beach toys, tossing footballs through hula hoops, Jagger-walking backward around a circle of champagne bottles and other such tomfoolery. It always ends with a “Jeopardy!”-like pop quiz designed to give old duffers a fighting chance against the 20-somethings.

Approaching the finish line after my ordeal, I figured I had a shot at a top-five finish till I saw the final test – a photo recognition quiz called “Name That Kardashian.” With each Kim, Khloe and Kylie that passed my clueless eyes, my time rose and my heart sank. “I’d do better with Roger Clemens’ kids,” I thought.

Then the trick question (or picture) appeared – not another buxom, raven-haired celebrity known to all the world but me, but a pudgy bald guy with a cherubic grin whose family connection must have been well suppressed. “Khrushchev!” I yelled, trotting across the finish line, my top-five finish still a possibility.

I was reminded of this little adventure by this month’s latest revelation from the presidential campaign – it takes an old duffer to recognize a real socialist when he sees one.

It seems an indicator of the deeply emotional roots of this election that a term I have not heard regularly since the “duck and cover” air raid drills of the 1950s has come suddenly to be so commonly used.

For the Republicans, it is an epithet, something to call those who don’t agree with them, those who they fear want to take away the jobs, the religious beliefs, the white cultural dominance they have come to see as their entitlement, the way life should be.

For the Democrats, the term is equally emotionally based. It has become a code word for a dream, a “revolution,” a way of frightening Hillary Clinton into saying she will provide more “free” stuff – higher education, pre-K education, health care. And it, too, is based on fear of loss – not the loss of security once possessed, but the loss of a promised security now apparently slipping permanently out of reach.

Where Republicans define socialists as those who took away the security they attained in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Democrats define socialists as those who will provide the security they came to expect as children and have seen snatched away by the Great Recession and the slow growth that has followed.

Neither definition says anything about what “socialism” actually is or could be, but both reveal real fears that deserve serious consideration, something that clearly won’t occur in the current political climate of incivility and dirty tricks. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be thinking about what happens after this election, for the presidency and all the other offices to which we can elect leaders.

Indeed, the ghastly possibilities that now appear increasingly likely should inspire renewed interest in public policy at all levels of government, rather than pushing the vast middle of our electorate further into their caves of despair.

In his book “The Great Surge,” Steven Radelet, former chief economist for the Agency for International Development, cites the crumbling of the Soviet empire – i.e., the abandonment of socialism – as the primary cause of the vast increase in living standards that has occurred over the past 25 years in the non-Western countries that used to be called “the Third World.”

But within that overarching claim, he further states that “institutions, on their own, do not dictate outcomes.” The absence of state control of the economy alone is not sufficient to stir innovation, create jobs, increase income and spread prosperity. Some countries have prospered (Chile, Costa Rica, Ghana) while others have not (Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Syria).

The central reason for the difference, Radelet asserts, is leadership. When those who aspire to be heads of state present clear programs to improve the lives of people and clear directions for how to implement them, citizens respond positively and progress becomes possible. Appealing to people’s hopes rather than pandering to their fears produces better social outcomes, regardless of the name given to the program.

Here’s hoping that the fear and anger upon which those who would be our national leader seem to be drawing their motivation will not infect the efforts of the rest who would lead us in our local and state governments.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]