Column: When will Republicans learn that demonizing liberals as ‘socialists’ doesn’t work?
They tried it with Barack Obama. Didn’t work. Tried it with Joe Biden. Didn’t work.
Will the Republican right ever understand that using phrases like “radical left” and “socialism” to tarnish Democratic candidates is a fear tactic that should be retired?
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the bemittened democratic socialist from Vermont, was a front-runner in the Democratic presidential primaries for months, which should tell you something about how Americans feel about the label, particularly the younger Americans who were his most fervent supporters.
But that didn’t cause the right to reconsider.
In December, Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler was so profligate with the phrase “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” to describe her opponent that someone put together a compilation video showing her repeating it robotically at least 10 times in a single debate.
It’s almost too silly to call the centrist 78-year-old Biden a socialist, so Republicans are instead calling him “a hapless tool of the extreme left,” insisting he won’t be able to withstand the pressure from the radical likes of Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But here’s what Republicans are failing to realize. As families suffer and Americans die because the Trump administration refused to lead during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to sell the idea that we need less government. In a pandemic — must it even be said? — competent government is essential.
And yet the notion that Democrats are taking this country down a scary path — to socialism or perhaps hell — continues to resonate with conservatives.
Just last week, I was driving north on Highway 101 through the Conejo Valley. One freeway overpass was decked out with flags and banners, including one that said “No socialism.”
But what does that even mean?
“I work a lot to untangle what socialism is,” Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson told me Monday. “Socialism is when the government actually owns the means of production. People who think they are in favor are not. They are actually in favor of regulated capitalism. Republicans say you can either have capitalism or communist Russia. They refuse to admit there is anything in between.”
Richardson, who is also the author of the popular blog Letters from an American on Substack, told me I needed to take a look at a 1971 document called the Powell memo. Written at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, a lawyer who represented the Tobacco Institute, the memo came at a time when Washington was vastly expanding its regulatory power, toughening or creating rules about the environment, consumer protection and occupational safety.
Corporations were, to say the least, freaked out by what they considered “creeping socialism,” she said, and they didn’t remain passive.
“Business must learn the lesson,” wrote Powell, “that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”
It was, essentially, a “call to arms for corporations” as Bill Moyers once put it. Historians debate its influence, but many believe it helped launch the era of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and groups like the Federalist Society.
In any case, as historians Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson write in their book “Winner-Take-All Politics,” the number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington exploded after the Powell memo. “On every dimension of corporate political activity, the numbers reveal a dramatic, rapid mobilization of business resources in the mid-1970s.”
Of course, that trend has continued.
Remember Joe the Plumber?
He was the guy who met then-presidential candidate Barack Obama on the sidewalk of a working-class neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio, in October 2008, shortly before Obama became the first Black president. Their brief exchange launched the plumber to momentary fame, a book deal and a brief, unsuccessful political career.
“I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes 250 to 280 thousand dollars a year,” Joseph Wurzelbacher told Obama. “Your new tax plan’s going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
Obama, unfazed, gave a rather wonky reply about the tax rate and tax credits for small businesses.
“It’s not that I want to punish your success,” Obama added. “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance at success, too. ... Right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody. and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Republicans pounced. Obama’s then-rival Arizona Sen. John McCain accused Obama of promoting socialist policies. Four years later, when Obama was running for reelection and McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was toying with the idea of running, she leveled the charge frequently against Obama.
“Barack Obama is a socialist,” she bluntly told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in 2012.
Of course, Obama is not a socialist. He is a middle-of-the road liberal who simply wanted every American to be able to secure health insurance.
And now that Obamacare has taken us one baby step toward universal single-payer health insurance, a.k.a. “Medicare for all,” and now that we have a Democrat in the Oval Office, Republicans are again returning to the idea that trying to improve the lives of working people is tantamount to socialism.
“Their vision for America is socialism,” said former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley last summer. “And we know that socialism has failed everywhere.”
The attempt to demonize great ideas like college debt forgiveness always reminds me of the scene in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” where Reg, leader of the People’s Front of Judea, wonders, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
He then adds: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
So what have the flaming liberals ever done for you?
As George McGovern once told a reporter from the National Journal, “Every program that ever helped working people — from rural electrification to Medicare — was enacted by liberals over the opposition of conservatives. When people tell me they don’t like liberals, I ask, ‘Do you like Social Security? If so, then shut up!’”
Good point, George.
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