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Tilting at Windmills

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March 1, 2009

THE RED SCARE.... The notion of conservative Republicans throwing around accusations of "socialism" as a shorthand for "government programs the right doesn't like" isn't exactly new. Conservatives said the same thing about the New Deal ("Comrade Roosevelt" was a familiar retort). And Medicare. And every labor-friendly measure of the 20th century.

In recent years, it's become a lazy right-wing talking point to describe anyone and anything that's even vaguely liberal. Glenn Beck went on a tirade about a year ago, arguing that Hillary Clinton's policy agenda "sounds like the Soviet Union" -- he labeled her "Comrade Clinton" -- and said of John Edwards, "Now, put a red star on his furry head. He's a communist." In 2005, when some raised questions about the propriety of lawmakers attending retreats sponsored by corporate lobbyists, then-Rep. James Gibbons (R-Nev.) said, "Anybody who is against that obviously must be a communist."

Now, however, we've reached the point at which conservatives can say almost nothing else.

Conservatives might be seeking a spiritual leader, organizing principle and fresh identity, but they at least seem to have settled on a favorite rhetorical ogre: socialism.

As in, Democrats are intent on forcing socialism on the "U.S.S.A" (as the bumper sticker says, under the words "Comrade Obama").

It seems that "socialist" has supplanted "liberal" as the go-to slur among much of a conservative world confronting a one-two-three punch of bank bailouts, budget blowouts and stimulus bills. Right-leaning bloggers and talk radio hosts are wearing out the brickbat. Senate and House Republicans have been tripping over their podiums to invoke it. The S-bomb has become as surefire a red-meat line at conservative gatherings as "Clinton" was in the 1990s and "Pelosi" is today.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) referred to the president as "the world's best salesman of socialism." Mike Huckabee, before casually throwing around references to Lenin and Stalin endorsing the Democratic agenda, decried "socialist republics" in the United States.

A few angles to consider here:

First, red scares had more salience during the Cold War. There's a whole generation of Americans which has no memory of the USSR, giving the constant whining about "socialism" far less salience.

Second, I have no idea why conservatives get to accuse Democrats of "socialism," but accusations of "fascism" are considered beyond the pale of reasonable discourse.

And third, would it kill these right-wing clowns to learn what "socialism" actually is? Until Democrats start calling for state control over the means of production, the conservatives sound like idiots. The right may not like the idea of a top individual tax rate going from 35% to 39%, but to bash the idea with a red scare is even more intellectually lazy than most of the right's other absurd talking points.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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Second, I have no idea why conservatives get to accuse Democrats of "socialism," but accusations of "fascism" are considered beyond the pale of reasonable discourse.

It's worth considering that some countries that could be called "socialist" with a straight face, such as Sweden, have nevertheless been democracies and pleasant places to live, while fascism has proven totally incompatible with that.

I'm certain that's not the reason why things work out that way in the United States, but it might have more saliency abroad.

Posted by: cminus on March 1, 2009 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

This name calling only goes one way thing is based on three things:
1) The hardcore bunch who call themselves Cons are bullies by nature. They don't like it when their "victims" fight back.
2) Considering the cult of personality around Ronnie Raygun and their support for fascist measures that subverted democracy in the US, I think the name strikes a little too close to home to wingnuts.
3) Much like that jackass radio host Kevin James who screamed appeasement but did not know what it meant and the historical context it is used in (and to be schooled by Chris Mathews, COMEON!),they are like 5 year old kids who swear without knowing what it really means.

Posted by: Former Dan on March 1, 2009 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

We have a mixed economy, and we've had a mixed economy for a lot longer than even Roosevelt and the New Deal. That's the reality. And, if pushed on it, damn few Republicans would advocate a pure capitalist system. Do away with social security entirely? Scrap all government regulation? Not likely. Even if they wanted that they know that there is no way the American public will stand for it and they will be voted out of office long before they ever get there (oh, wait, isn't that what just happened?).

The constant accusations that the Democrats are Socialists and want to enslave the US is crap. When you look at what is really going on, both sides are probably in agreement on 80% of what's going on and they are arguing over the remaining 20%. Both want to keep a mixed economy, the Democrats want something a little more egalitarian, where everyone shares in the bounty and the Republicans want something weighted a little more on the side of the wealthy, so they can keep and make more money. It's time to start calling these idiots on what they are selling...which is mostly fear.

Posted by: majun on March 1, 2009 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

Look, we all saw the poorly educated, poorly equipped and inexplicably angry (they'd had their way for eight years, after all) people who showed up at the McCain/Palin rallies. We laugh at the GOP choosing insults designed for the 1950s. They do it because they can't keep up with things, sure, but even more, they do it because their base is ignorant, ill-read, resentful and requiring of scare language that, after decades of overuse, even the most slack jawed and out of touch can understand.

Posted by: shortstop on March 1, 2009 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) referred to the president as "the world's best salesman of socialism."

Actually, Senator, your pick for president last time, did that by making capitalism appear defective and heartless.

would it kill these right-wing clowns to learn what "socialism" actually is? Until Democrats start calling for state control over the means of production, the conservatives sound like idiots.

I think you're describing "communism".
Socialism is "communism-lite". Government control of only those industries that handle necessities with vast infrastructure requirements. Water, sewage, electricity, and some argue... health care.

America pretends its capitalist by having private companies manage electricity and phones and allowing a few other companies to charge for the service, (but MUST coordinate with the monopolies (Verizon and PEPCO where I live) because they have no actual access to the infrastructure elements. Shell capitalism. It's socialism with a profit margin skimmed off monthly statements instead of taxes.

I'm not saying we should change it, but I would like some appreciation for how little free market capitalism exists for the BIG things.

Water and Sewage? Government controlled.
Streets? Government controlled.
Fire and Police. Government controlled with private supplements in California wildfire territory.

Trash? Government controlled. Contractors generally don't get to create hundreds of private dumps.

Snow Removal? Leaf Collection? Ditto.

(Until recently) food, drug, and product safety inspections. Government controlled.

We ARE socialist. Which of these things are Republicans asking me to chomp at the bit to manage / pay for. All of them? How much capitalism do they think most of us truly WANT?

Frankly PRIVATIZER could have some very ugly connotations if talk radio were to be infected with a healthy dose of honesty. We never dubbed Bush with that epithet when he wanted to convert the Social Security contract into the stock market roll of the dice, but it would have fit... and it DIDN'T go over too well.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on March 1, 2009 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

but nazis were socialists- the name "nazi" contains the word "socialist"!

that's about as far into logic as the wingnuts get these days.

Posted by: Personal Failure on March 1, 2009 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

The Failure Fascists have abandoned understanding. All they have now is rhetoric about socialism -- a concept they don't even understand.

What they do understand is that angry words about socialism, Lenin and Stalin gets other people worked into a lather. This is their new way to motivate the Republican Silent Majority, the Angry White Male, The "Moral Majority", Values Voters, Joe Sixpack, NASCAR Moms, Palin's "Real Americans."

It's pitiful. The blind leading the easily led.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on March 1, 2009 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

Hey, everyone knows Sweden's socialist, for instance. Even if they have a conservative government now, and the socialists are out of power. Heck, Sweden's even got nobility, a king and queen, some major global companies, and a selection of the world's richest people.
But it's socialist.

Wingnuts could no more define socialism than they can recite the ten commandments.

Posted by: SteinL on March 1, 2009 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

This has nothing to do with Democrats, it's just Republican politicians giving their base a reason to drink beer in that GOP entertainment deadzone known as "after-NASCAR/before-wrestlin'".

Posted by: spudvol on March 1, 2009 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

Laughable if it not so nauseating.Joe Biden should be out there taking these wingnuts on. Scripted , of course, as Joe sometimes gets a little verbose. Everytime Rush the comedian or Huckabee lets it fly Joey should be right in their faces with a history lesson that begins with a listing of each of their votes to increase Bushit's "socialistic" agenda which included the fascist fear mongering that lied us into war. Nauseating. Unbridled nausea...

Posted by: Stevio on March 1, 2009 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

This morning, I was reading comments at David Horsey's political cartoon Seattle P-I site - His latest cartoon depicts right winger fat cats on a golf course screaming about "Class Warfare" because of the proposed tax increases for the wealthy. One of the regular RW trolls, began attacks on a progressive poster, by writing "COMRADE so and so".

As an aside, looks as though the P-I will soon close. David Horsey should be read by every progressive. Hope he lands at a decent paper.

Posted by: berttheclock on March 1, 2009 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

charges that the Santelli rant was a coordinated right wing meme;


somewhat compelling.

Posted by: grinning cat on March 1, 2009 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

With such rhetoric, the Republican party is definitely changing its brand to The John Birch Society! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on March 1, 2009 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

Birch works ever so well for self-flagellation.

Posted by: berttheclock on March 1, 2009 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

Well, insofar as socialism involves the government ignoring the messages of the market and pouring money into failing enterprises because of political considerations, there is one sector that seems to meet those criteria.

Posted by: paul on March 1, 2009 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

One irony is that a nation with a large military cannot be fully capitalist - the military's agenda and purchasing of raw materials, goods and services (as well as siphoning off those who would otherwise work in private industry) highly distorts the economy (and ironically too, "provides jobs" that otherwise wouldn't exist.)

Posted by: Neil B ◙ on March 1, 2009 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, many of the Constitution Party and other far right wingers have picked on the word "Socialist" in NSDAP. However, they never study anything about that movement. The word socialist was used as a ploy to gain support from young out of work farm workers coming into the German cities. Many of these went into the SA to be used as bully boys. The Nazis never believed in nationalizing anything. They were comfortable with leaving industrialists and capitalists alone, as long as they supported the Nazi's efforts. They, also, fought pitched street battles with, not only the Communists, but the true Socialists, as well. After taking control of the government, those party members were among the first to be placed in the concentration "Arbeit Macht Frei" camps. The Socialists in Germany were, largely, decimated. One of the few to survive was Willy Brandt, the Mayor of West Berlin and, later, leader of West Germany.

Posted by: berttheclock on March 1, 2009 at 9:40 AM | PERMALINK

The most ironic part about this whole situation is the failure of most, if not all, Republicans to understand that FDR actually *saved* capitalism in the US. Without the New Deal, our economic system would have gone up in flames, with the Communists and Fascists fighting over the dead corpse.

The parallels with what we're experiencing today are interesting. Obama is also being forced to literally save capitalism from itself, once again.

Posted by: OhNoNotAgain on March 1, 2009 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

I think it's something else.
You know that small pulse of light-headed incredulousness you experience when you see Obama's image on TV and the words "President Obama . . ." on the band beneath?
They feel it too, but for them it's not a good feeling--it's driving them nuts.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on March 1, 2009 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

You know that small pulse of light-headed incredulousness you experience when you see Obama's image on TV and the words "President Obama . . ." on the band beneath?
They feel it too, but for them it's not a good feeling--it's driving them nuts

That made me smile.

Posted by: shortstop on March 1, 2009 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

Yesterday I read the Notebook for last month's Harper's that is an essay about the vapid American mind and ignorance of ordinary history. Today I am reading the responses to the blog post I linked to above and there is one responder quoting a wikipedia entry on the John Birch Society to justify their existence and Koch's role in the JBS. The responder gleaned from the wiki entry that JBS was just an ordinary "libertarian" org.

I suggest the Harper's piece "A Quibble" by Mark Slouka. Some good imagery of far away drumbeats getting louder as we sit around and celebrate Obama's victory.

Americans are stupid and uneducated and there are lots of them. Just look at the coordinated pr generated of the Santelli rant and the amount of people buying into a bunch of fat cats traders now standing up against bailouts for those that don't deserve it.

Posted by: grinning cat on March 1, 2009 at 9:57 AM | PERMALINK

I disagree with you Steve. "Fascism" is only beyond the pale when it's a liberal/left type describing lie-based militaristic corporate nationalism. Republicans can use it as an accusation whenever they want, from moronic history books to Obama = Hitler bumper stickers.

I don't really care mind you. The GOP, in case anyone noticed, has become mildly discredited. Their current socialism/fascism offensive has driven Obama's approval ratings down from 65% to 70%.

And now they've even brought out the big guns: McConnell tarring Obama with the "Carter" slander. If there's anything that resonates with the American people its comparing our current president with a Nobel Peace Prize winning, globally respected philanthropist. OUCH!

Posted by: Jay B. on March 1, 2009 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

It's appealing to the core Republican voter. Elderly white male. If you're over 50, you remember the Reds pretty well-- over 70 and you remember Nixon's Red-baiting (e.g., the Pink Lady) and maybe even ol' Tailgunner Joe. Hey, it worked once before, why not now?

Posted by: MattF on March 1, 2009 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK
What they do understand is that angry words about socialism, Lenin and Stalin gets other people worked into a lather. This is their new way to motivate the Republican Silent Majority...

They may not know much comparative government, but they know marketing. It's what they do.

The salient fact in American politics is that there are always enough people who would volunteer to live with their family in a cardboard box under a railroad bridge, and toast sparrows on an old curtain rod over an open fire, if you would only guarantee them that the people in the next box over -- black, gay, foreign, liberal, different -- don't even get the sparrow, to elect a government.

The GOP is counting on it -- and why not? It usually works. The 1930's didn't have to come out the way they did. Today, they get their mulligan. This time, they could get the Falangist paradise of their dreams.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on March 1, 2009 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry. Para #1 above is a blockquote -- rest is me. Blown tag.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on March 1, 2009 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

It seems that the actual momentum behind contemporary American socialism originated in, of all places, Goldman Sachs.

Paging Comrades Paulson and Geithner.

Posted by: skimble on March 1, 2009 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

Calling the American Right "fascist" conforms to the facts: fascism is an authoritarian movement with unquestioned leaders that identifies its enemies as conspirators to be physically eliminated, which believes in an otherwise-unformed "will" that expresses itself in war, and bases its programs on a mythological (and fact-free) view of its national origins as "the folk". It is avowedly patriarchal and anti-feminine, assigning women only to a domestic role as submissive wife and "mother of the folk." Its followers see themselves as persecuted victims until they become strong enough to rise together and throw off their oppressors. Fascism also believes in an unfettered capitalism and is willing - even eager - to employ slave labor; it sees trade unionists as enemies to be imprisoned and killed.

Anyone see The Party of Rush as anything else?

BTW - let's start calling them The American Wrong, since it's a far more factual description of their pathetic movement.

Posted by: TCinLA on March 1, 2009 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK
"would it kill these right-wing clowns to learn what "socialism" actually is? Until Democrats start calling for state control over the means of production, the conservatives sound like idiots."

I think you're describing "communism".

Nope. Socialism refers to government monopoly ownership of the means of production. Communism refers to government ownership of property more generally. If you own your home and the clothes on your back then you do not live under a communist system. If the government taxes and spends money on social welfare and competes with private industry in some aspects of production, that's not socialism, or even more than very vaguely related thereto.

Posted by: Robert Johnston on March 1, 2009 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't socialism, as defined by Marx, where the workers/employees control the means of production and decide who runs the company?

Posted by: 2Manchu on March 1, 2009 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

"Socialism" has a special meaning for some conservatives who follow end time theology, wherein society will be taken over by a World Socialist Government.

So one of the reasons the word does not ring a bell for non-conservatives is we don't have that context.

see http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/268214

Posted by: Tom B. on March 1, 2009 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

Definitions of "Socialism" change over time.

Employing Marx' definition of 'Socialism' today is as anachronistic as using the word 'Liberal' in the sense it had in Gladstone and Disraeli's day, and about as helpful.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on March 1, 2009 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

There is a large portion of the population in this country that grew into adulthood after the Cold War, and a bunch more who never really knew what the word really meant anyway.

What Republicans don't realize is that, by throwing the word around loosely, and putting the label on lots of policies that are broadly popular, they will define it as a good word.

There may be a few people out there in the current crisis who say, "I don't know what socialism is, but if it helps me pay my mortgage (keep my job, heat my house, put food on the table, etc.), I'm for it!"

Posted by: biggerbox on March 1, 2009 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK


Posted by: jcricket on March 1, 2009 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

REM also that banks etc. aren't even real "means of production" and they can't in principle even function separately from the government. Banks hook up to the Fed and fiat money creation, they are like remoras on a shark ... Indeed, it could be argued that such an entity is a ward of the government, they should all be nationalized in some capacity ...


Posted by: Neil B ◙ on March 1, 2009 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

I think Rachel Maddow had it right the other night after her interview with the "Left Behind" authors: the charge of "socialism" is a dog whistle to the Christian right, which sees a socialist state as a necessary condition for the Rapture to occur.

Posted by: Robert on March 1, 2009 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

jcricket = teh funny.

When I see the right pissing in their delicate li'l panties that their mommies laid out for them whilst mewling about Obama's "socialist" agenda, all I think is that they've truly given up on the young vote, the under-30 vote. Might as well reference the Whig party while you're at it.

Posted by: slappy magoo on March 1, 2009 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

When some of my right-wing staff starts mouthing about The "New Socalism", I just mention "Better red than dead.". How true it is these days.

Posted by: BearCreekMan on March 1, 2009 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

Sometimes I think conservatives choose to closely relate "socialism" with "social". I think of socialism as a theoretical concept of government that has never existed and cannot exist, just as does a "pure democracy". Socialism: public collective ownership or control of the basic means of production, distribution and exchange, with the avowed aim of operating for use rather than for profit, and of assuring to each member of society an equitable share of goods, services, etc. Social: of or pertaining to society or its organization: disposed to hold friendly intercourse with others or promoting friendly intercourse with others. Apparently anything "social" or with the word "social" in it or anything that can be construed as "social" is therefore "socialism". It must be the fault of attending a public "socialism" school.

Posted by: MRB on March 1, 2009 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

"Definitions of "Socialism" change over time."

Well, no; not really. Especially in the context of invoking socialism as a bogeyman. You can't both use "socialism" to refer to public spending for broad public benefits and draw the inference that socialism is something inherently bad; that inference is rooted very specifically in the classical definition of socialism under which private ownership of the means of production is illegal.

Modern conservative invocations of "socialism" are transparent efforts to rely on manufactured semantic ambiguity to persuade people to draw false inferences, and it's not merely entirely appropriate but rather necessary for coherent discussion to demand that conservatives use the definition of socialism under which their intended inferences about socialism were derived.

Posted by: Robert Johnston on March 1, 2009 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

One day I heard Limbaugh acknowledged that fascism was on the extreme radical right in political terms but that over time governmental political system descriptions had changed and now fascism had become so far to the right that it had curved around somehow and had become in the area of far radical left. With an extensive knowledge of electricity I began to wonder if positive DC voltage could become so great as to eventually become negative voltage. And if you could get so high going up that you could be down. It staggers the imagination.

Posted by: MRB on March 1, 2009 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

I think 2Manchu is right, actually. Socialism refers to workers owning the means of production, making it an economic system not political, unless it becomes compulsory under the government. Communism is a political system in which the government centrally plans the economy and the means of production are owned by the government not the people.

At least that's what I've always been taught...and the US is very far from either. I think it would be more accurate to discuss government programs and regulations in terms of statism. Statism is part of both communism and socialism, but they're both different in how the state is used. Or am I completely off base here?

In the end, I seriously don't think Republicans would know the difference anyway. The GOP isn't exactly a bastion of intellectual thought nowadays.

Posted by: drosz on March 1, 2009 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Second, I have no idea why conservatives get to accuse Democrats of "socialism," but accusations of "fascism" are considered beyond the pale of reasonable discourse.

I'm sure someone has said it above, but,

that's because socialism isn't beyond the pale of reasonable discourse.

Posted by: alan on March 1, 2009 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

Bbox's comment leads to an important point. For years, the word "liberal" was used by those on the Right as a smear, and successfully so. Only for a limited time, though. Eventually, the Right relied on it too much, and people began to realize that liberal policies were not inherently evil. I wonder if the same thing will happen with "socialist," and the Right will inadvertently create a viable socialist party in the U.S.?

Posted by: mystery on March 1, 2009 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

I think that the best defense is a good offence. But in this case, the really effective offense hasn't yet made it into the debate (either in this blog or more generally). That offense is, namely, that the problem with the Republicans is that they are utopians of the "free market."

Since the Second War, the Right has made hay with the idea that any vaguely progressive stance leads to a slippery slope of utopian ideas -- rigid efforts to transform human nature in unrealistic ways. We all know the effectiveness of the Cold War critique of Communism in the hands of Popper or Berlin, etc.

Isn't the problem now that the Right has been exposed as equally utopian? To every real world problem all that they can do is evoke a pure "free market," a market, which, in such a state, has never existed. The result of this is that, faced with a depression-like economic downturn, they just tell us to stop spending or offer tax cuts to the wealthy. Their thought is absolutely bound by this utopia of a perfect market, to the extent that they cannot see how that very ideology has caused the present situation and cannot get us out of it.

The symptom of the utopian thinker is precisely such rigidity, such inability to compromise a "perfect" ideology for reality. Isn't this a moment to respond with some version of Hegel's warning, "the worst enemy of the better is the best"?

I don't think the Repugs are precisely fascists (not quite, anyhow), but I do think that they are utopians of the worst kind.

Posted by: TB on March 1, 2009 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

Oh yeah...one more thing, after being gang-raped by a bunch of crony capitalists, socialism doesn't look half as bad to the average guy who has lost his job, lost his health insurance, lost his savings and lost his house as it used to look. Suddenly, it looks positively sunny.

They might as well try threatening a starving crowd with veiled threats of bread.

Posted by: Chesire11 on March 2, 2009 at 5:59 AM | PERMALINK

Why the heck don't the more vocal democrats develop a vocabulary that identifies the Republicans as supporting "feudalism"? Putting the wealthy in control of everything seems more anti-American than putting the government in control of everything (what they accuse the Democrats of doing).

Posted by: Peter Waksman on March 2, 2009 at 6:54 AM | PERMALINK



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