Friday, March 13, 2009

More on the "socialism" label

Salon's Joan Walsh writes in I was a teenage socialist! 03/10/09 that the New York Times' Peter Baker asking Obama if he's a socialist made her pay new attention to the Republicans Obama-is-a-socialist line and its possible persistence:

... John McCain and the right wing started calling Obama a "redistributionist" and a Marxist last fall.

I assumed it would fall flat with voters, most of whom had no adult memory of the days when "socialist" or "Marxist" was the sort of label that scared people, and I was right. But the right has hung onto the notion, and it's spreading a little bit -- CNBC's crazy Jim Cramer recently called Obama a "Bolshevik," an even older, more obscure, more irrelevant slur.

I hadn't really thought this outdated label could get attached to Obama, beyond the right-wing fringe and the increasingly defensive CNBC set, until I read the New York Times interview with Obama on Sunday.
The title of her article refers to the fact that as a beginning journalist she worked for In These Times, which in its early years described itself as a "socialist" paper.

Joan's article reminds me again that the discussion about "socialism" that the rightwing gasbags are having among themselves might as well be taking place in a parallel dimension from any such discussion happening among people who actually know something about the history and concepts of socialism over the last two centuries. Joan Walsh being in the latter group.

But there's a certain hazard in that. Last year, I read a book by the German writer Sebastian Haffner on the 1918 German democratic revolution which unseated the Emperor (Kaiser Bill) and established the parliamentary democracy that history knows as the Weimar Republic. Ever since then I've been thinking about doing a post on it. But I always put it off when I start thinking of how to troll-proof the post (to avoid easily-distorted wording) while also actually discussing what makes the book particularly interesting and doing so in a way that puts it in a meaningful context for American readers. I think I'm going to give it another try. So I suppose I'll need to think how to explain what a "workers council" of 1918 in Germany would mean in 2009 American terms. And it's not the language translation that's the challenge.

Sarah Posner, a longtime critical observer of the Christian Right, points out one of the ways in which Republicans frame "socialism" as a cuss word in their own way of thinking in The FundamentaList (No. 70) The American Prospect Online 03/04/09:

The berating of supposed "socialism" is not just an echo of cultural iconography of the rugged individualist American who brooks no government handouts or highfalutin food. It has roots in Christian fundamentalism, like that of religious-right granddaddy and renowned chronicler of the impending apocalypse Tim LaHaye. According to Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing movements at Political Research Associates, LaHaye claims that Satan himself "engineered" the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, bringing us the New Deal. That, in LaHaye's mind, was a conspiracy to turn the Constitution "upside down."

What most Americans call liberalism, LaHaye describes as an "alien philosophy." It is "antithetical" to the Bible, an "antichrist conspiracy" that "dominates the public school system from kindergarten through graduate school," controls the media and entertainment industry, and "elects a predominance of liberals to both parties in our national government."

Most elected Republicans would stop short of that in public, but their rhetoric at CPAC had that apocalyptic flavor. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, complained, "A nation that raises its children in government schools cannot expect its people to stand for the principles of freedom." Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, added, "The laws of nature and of nature's God are the only touchstones of truth," and "the purpose of government is to secure these natural rights." But when "government goes beyond its high mission," it "replaces nature's God with a regulatory state." [my emphasis]
LaHaye, most famous as one of the authors of the Left Behind Christian fundamentalist series of novels, was once an adherent of the John Birch Society. It's crackpot outlook apparently has stuck with him.

It's also important for Democrats to remember that the Christian Right has developed a somewhat cult-like vocabulary for talking about politics. So where most people hear "socialism" and think it just means "bad" (or maybe "government ownership"). In the Christian Right vocabulary, it means something more sinister, an attack by the Devil on Truth and Christianity, an "antichrist conspiracy".

In her piece, Joan observes that the "socialist" accusation is meant as a distraction:

How much the government gets involved in the economy is a small-d democratic capitalist concern, and Obama follows in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, like it or not, as a liberal who cares about the poor but who nonetheless holds free-market principles as a given. Everybody left of Rush Limbaugh knows that. John McCain certainly knows that. This is another right-wing distraction from terrible economic problems that, frankly, could destroy American capitalism as we know it. And that's not a threat, it's a fact.
This is true. But for Democratic politicians, it won't be an adequate response to the accusation.

For the Christian Right, how the Dems respond basically won't make a difference. Obama will remain the scary black socialist-communist-fascist-babykilling Antichrist to them.

But this line of attack is also an example of what Josh Marshall calls the bitch-slap tactic. The Republican whacks a Democrat with some sleazy accusation. If the Dem successfully shoves it back into his face - e.g., "that's a bunch of sleazy lying nonsense and you ought to be ashamed to even say such a thing" - the Dem wins the exchange in the eyes of viewers. Bill Clinton did that well in one of his 1992 debates with Old Man Bush when Bush brought up the Republican accusation that Clinton had been an agent of the Soviet KGB. This stuff isn't totally new for the Republicans. And you don't have to go back to Joe McCarthy's heyday to find it either.

On the other hand, if the Dem comes off responding in a whiny way - "you're calling me names", "that's inappropriate language", etc. - it doesn't give the Republican accusation any more real-world credibility. Most people are not really worried that the Obama administration intends to expropriate the family car. But it does make the Dems look weak in the dramatic sense. The Dems are getting better at responding well to this. I hope I'm not indulging in simple wishful thinking in saying that. But they need to be able to consistently do the back-in-your-face response on this one.

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