In Geoffrey Skelley’s “Is Socialism Still An Effective Political Bogeyman?” at FiveThirtyEight, he writes: “If President Trump’s most recent State of the Union address is any indication, socialism could be at the forefront of his 2020 campaign rhetoric. In his Feb. 5 speech, Trump said that “we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country” and declared that “America will never be a socialist country.”
No shocker there, and it’s not just Trump. Republicans have parroted similar inanities for as long as all of us have been alive. But Skelley may be right that we should expect an uptick in GOP references to the socialist bogeyman in the 2020 campaigns.
The Republicans are desperate after getting creamed in the midterm elections. And now they have to own millions of voters getting screwed by G.O.P. tax “reform,” and their utter failure to enact any improvements in America’s health care. They can’t run on their record, so here come the distractions, including the fear-monger’s twin bogeymen, the Dangerous Undocumented Immigrant and the dreaded Creature of the Socialist Lagoon.
Skelley notes that “Unlike in the 1940s, Americans today are more likely to identify socialism with “equality” than with “government ownership or control,” according to polling by Gallup.” Skelley notes, further,
Gallup periodically asks Americans how they feel about socialism, and in 2018, the pollster found that 57 percent of Democrats held a positive view of socialism, compared with just 16 percent of Republicans.3 For Democrats, this represented essentially no change from 2016, although it was a bit higher than in 2012, when 53 percent of Democrats said the same. As for Republicans, positive feelings toward socialism ranged from 13 percent to 23 percent in the four Gallup polls of the question since 2010…And in a January poll from Fox News, 80 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats said it would be “a bad thing” for the United States “to move away from capitalism and more toward socialism.”
…In June 2015, Gallup asked Americans about whether they’d vote for a socialist if their party nominated one — and found that 50 percent of respondents said they would not be willing to. The poll tested 11 different candidate characteristics — for example, whether someone was an evangelical Christian or a woman — to see what voters disliked most, and it found that the biggest disqualifier for both parties was a candidate who identified as a socialist. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats said they weren’t willing to vote for a socialist, and 73 percent of Republicans said the same.
Skelley adds that “59 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents said they would have “some reservations” or would feel “very uncomfortable” supporting a self-descibed socialist. He argues that “these numbers suggest that there is still an opportunity for Trump to score points by painting his opponent as a socialist in 2020.”
However, Skelley concludes, “it’s 2019, not 1949; socialism doesn’t automatically evoke the Iron Curtain anymore, and fewer Americans now associate socialism with government control or ownership. Trump’s anti-socialist message may find less success than he hopes.”
Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that Democratic candidates have anything to gain by proclaiming themselves “Democratic Socialists.” Why even go there? Let the social scientists debate the differences between democratic socialism and social democracy. Democratic candidates should never take the bait and get suckered into arguments about political terminology.
Numerous surveys indicate that most Americans, even many of those who self-identify as conservatives, are “operational liberals,” who support a range of progressive policies that could fairly be termed “socialist” in origin. Thus, defend policies not ideological brands. Even long-time democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders often shruggs off the socialist brand when confronted and pivots to the issue of concern.
To address socialist bogeyman accusations in debates, interviews or tweets, Democratic candidates could ridicule the fear-mongering with brief, well-prepared retorts and soundbites, like “you may call decent health care (or fair taxes, gun control, labor laws or bank regulation) socialism, but I call it responsible government.” if they persist, “I doubt most Americans are so scared of that bogeyman; what people want are reforms that can improve their lives in the real world.” Or crack wise, “Our party isn’t the one caving to Putin’s entire agenda. That would be the Republicans”
If the discussion still gets prolonged, point out that Republicans once called Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage and all of the now-popular policies of the New Deal and Great Society as “socialist.” Make them say whether they now believe such programs should be abolished in the name of the ‘free market.’ Redirect the heat where it belongs.