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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Branding Persons and Policies as ‘Socialist’: The Progressive Response

Those old enough to remember what the McCarthy Era felt like will recognize the re-emergence of an ugly meme in American politics: branding reforms and individuals as “Socialist.” Of course, red-baiting never really went completely away. But now it’s back in a big way. The idea here is to demonize their liberal adversaries as authoritarian, even those who are advocating the most moderately liberal of reforms.
Effective branding, as every experienced business person knows, requires repetition. And so here we go with conservative ideologues repeated demonizing of liberal supporters of health care reform as “Socialists.” Presumably the term “Communist” has been judged a little too harsh for modern meme-propagation, at least at this juncture. But the same twisted, fear-mongering psychology is at work, and if unchallenged, it could get worse.
I suspect that many, if not most of the latter-day red-baiters have no clue that there are many stable governments that have free speech, free elections and embrace what can be described as ‘Socialist’ policies. They merely parrot memes they have heard on Fox Network, Freedomworks or WorldnetDaily.Com, encouraged by GOP opinion leaders who know better.
The New York Times ‘Room for Debate’ blog is running a mini-forum on “What is Socialism 2009?,” with contributions by academics and journalists. A couple of their short essays, followed by some perceptive reader comments, illuminate the psychology behind latest round of neo-Mcarthyist Socialist-bashing.
In his essay, Andrew Hartman an assistant professor of history at Illinois State University, observes:

…The degree to which conservatives invoke the specter of socialism has always been more calibrated to domestic anxieties than to foreign threats…For many, the label serves as an effective, if cynical sledgehammer. In a nation with a long history of anti-socialist sentiments, if health care reform can be associated with “socialism,” that’s good strategy.

In her contribution, The Nation Editor Katrina Vanden Heuval explains:

America’s Glenn Beck-inspired mobs would consider social democracy one and the same as socialism or communism. But there is a difference; and it is one which our history textbooks and our media have for the most part failed to fill us in on. So, now we are in a vacuum, and misinformation and mendacity fills it. At our peril. Isn’t social democracy — or call it socialism with a human face — all about a healthy and thriving public sphere in education, health care, transportation, libraries, parks, childcare? Isn’t it about government programs that improve the conditions of people’s lives? If that is socialism, then Medicare is our America variant of socialism.
We are poorer today for the divisions unleashed by those who would lash the label “socialism” around the neck of a moderately liberal president in order to cripple efforts by government to play a smart and humane role.

A commenter, Bill Hoagland adds:

When a reactionary political party has nothing positive to offer, and they desire to maintain the status quo– they can only resort to negativity. Calling someone a “Liberal” doesn’t quite have the negative connotation that they were once able to attach to it. So they label someone a “Socialist” and attack the person, or the plan. But it is nothing except ‘name calling’…

But a few Republican leaders are getting a bit worried. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, quoted in Peter Wallsten’s L.A. Times article “Some fear GOP is being carried to the extreme,” has expressed concern about “wild accusations and the paranoid delusions coming from the fever swamps…you have to be aware that there’s a line where legitimate concerns begin to collapse into paranoid fantasy.”
When the problem is ignorance, as always, the best approach is education. In her CNNPolitics.com commentary, Yale professor Jennifer Klein describes one couple’s stated fears of “a socialist takeover of their health care” voiced at one of the recent town hall meetings. Klein, co-author, with Eilene Boris of “For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State,” explains in interesting historical detail how the couple’s health care with the United Mineworkers’ union, has been government-subsidized from the outset.
But Klein concludes on a cautionary note and observes,

Health care reform will derail once more if we can’t learn to talk honestly about public benefits and public goods — how they protect us from the insecurities and inequities of the market and promote genuine economic security in the face of real imbalances of economic power and resources…The only moments when health security has been achieved in America are those founded on a partnership between empowered citizens and the federal government…It’s been the American way all along.

The “Socialist” accusation is being responded to across the country by progressives favoring an expanded role for government in health care reform. Although the climate of fear is not as intense as it was during the McCarthy era, Democrats should expect the attacks for a while longer, until even lazy reporters who can’t analyze policy get tired of writing about it. The thing is to be ready for it, to have some good soundbites and brief responses that put the accusations in proper perspective, such as:

“I think real socialists would laugh at the notion that the President’s plan is anything but a modest adjustment to capitalist health care.”


“Name-calling is the signature of a failed argument. They are accusing us of being “Socialist” to distract people from the weakness of their position.”


“If the President’s plan is so ‘Socialist”, why are physicians organizations and pharmaceutical companies supporting it?”

After that is accomplished, we can steer the discusssion away from name-calling and back toward the impressive benefits of health reforms being proposed by Democrats.

One comment on “Branding Persons and Policies as ‘Socialist’: The Progressive Response

  1. Phil on

    I think that if the right-wing is going to use the “socialist” smear, we should respond in kind by reviving another fear inspiring ideology from the graveyard: we should brand them “anarchists”.
    When conservatives say they want “freedom”, they usually mean they want a reckless, dangerous absence of government providing basic economic security to the people; in other words, anarchy.
    After all what do you call it when greedy insurance companies yank coverage from people who have paid into their system for years because they forgot to mention having chicken pox in the fifth grade, and the law does nothing to help the victim? I call that anarchy.
    What do you call when financial services are so deregulated that wall street can gamble with sums so large it constitutes an actual threat to our society? I call that anarchy.
    What do you call it when conservatives question the basic right of a democratically elected government to levy taxes to promote the general welfare, as spelled out in the constitution? I call that anarchy.
    Anyway, you see where I’m going. Frankly, modern conservatives are a good deal closer to actual anarchists then liberals are to communists.


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