Thursday, August 23, 2018

The S-word: The Ineffectiveness of Republican Cries of 'Socialism'

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law column two days ago, I expanded on my argument that NeverTrump conservatives now face a put-up-or-shut-up moment.  Whereas the standard commentary argues that liberals and progressives must not go "too far to the left," the reality is that NeverTrumpers must go wherever the Democrats take them, because no disagreement on specific policy issues (minimum wages, free college education, Supreme Court appointments) is more important than the preservation of constitutional democracy.

That column was part of my response to the emergence of "democratic socialism" among some Democrats and the Republicans' frantic attempts to use the word "socialist" as a scare tactic to woo swing voters.  My point was that honest people know that democratic socialism is a modest version of what is standard practice in most of Europe's richer democracies, not an attempt to go back to Stalinist gulags.  The people who know better -- most definitely including NeverTrumpers -- have a profound responsibility to educate people and push back against Republican slander.

I continued to make the substantive point that the American left is anything but extreme in my Verdict column today, where I discussed progressive icon Elizabeth Warren's recently proposed Accountable Capitalism Act, which is a crystal-clear example of her commitment to fix capitalism, not overthrow it.  Insinuations that the left wing of the Democratic Party is somehow anti-capitalist -- "If they're socialists, they can't be capitalists!" -- are simply wrong.

Even so, I am happy to report that it is possible that all of my concerns about a Republican smear campaign based on the dreaded S-word will not matter at all.  Even if voters become (wrongly) convinced that every Democrat is a socialist, it is possible that it simply will not matter.  In the end, plenty of voters might simply not be turned off by the socialist bogeyman.

It is absolutely clear that Republicans love to invoke the word socialist at every turn.  Just to take one amusing example, Ben Carson, the HUD Secretary who proves every day that policy analysis is more difficult than brain surgery, has referred to efforts to desegregate American neighborhoods as "failed socialist experiments."  Note that he is not talking about public housing projects (which are not socialist either, but at least they involve government ownership of an asset that could be privatized).  No, he calls desegregation itself a socialist plot.

This reflects a habit of mind among Republicans to invoke the word socialist in every situation, no matter whether it fits at all.  One of their big lies is that liberals are Marxist/Commie/Pinko/Socialists, and they clearly believe that repeating that lie over and over will make people believe it.  They certainly believe it among themselves.

For some ironic comedy, readers might want to take a moment to enjoy this two-minute video, in which a conservative millennial tries to troll a liberal millennial by arguing that Venezuela's deep troubles prove that socialism is bad.  The liberal's response: "You People Have Like Worms In Your Brain, Honestly."

Again, Republicans' go-to move is to accuse Democrats of being socialists.  This is why they relentlessly attacked Barack Obama -- whose policies ran from center-right to center-left, depending on the topic, but never too far from dead center -- as a socialist.  The Republicans' thinking is not: "Socialism means X, and Democrats are in favor of X, so they're socialists."  Instead, Republicans simply say: "Democrats are socialists, so whatever they favor is socialism."

This leads Republicans to make some rather bizarre claims.  For example, liberals have been having some fun recently responding to a Fox Business commentator's claim that Denmark, a genuine social democracy, is a dystopian nightmare.  Among other things, she claimed that a generous safety net was causing Danes not to work and to live off the dole, but it turns out that a lower percentage of Americans than Danes have jobs.

The commentator's defense: "I was merely pointing out, using reports from the Atlantic, the Independent and other publications, that socialism is not the way."  Yes, you were making that political point, but you were doing it dishonestly.  Again, her reasoning is circular: Socialism is bad because everyone knows that socialism is bad, and facts are irrelevant.

But this relentless Republican effort to smear every non-conservative policy and every Democratic politician as socialist is having the predictable effect of losing its impact.  As Paul Krugman put it recently: "Sooner or later, if you call any attempt to improve American lives 'socialism,' a lot of people will conclude that socialism is O.K."  For example, Obama's 2008 comment about "spreading the wealth around" through redistributive policies had Republicans screaming.  But if progressive tax rates are socialist, why should people fear socialism?

In addition, however, the more important reason to doubt the effectiveness of the Republicans' S-word strategy is that it is aimed at the wrong audience.  The people who are likely to be scared off by claims of socialism are older white voters who already overwhelmingly support Trump.  Younger voters do not view the S-word as a meaningful slam.  The reason for their equanimity is actually quite interesting.

When I started to write this column, I considered but rejected the title, "Those Who Do Not Remember History Are Freed From Being Misled By Distortions of It," which is obviously an homage to the famous quote from Santayana, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  My point is that although it is important to learn from history, it has to be genuine history.  When a group of ideologues has deliberately rewritten history to their own ends, however, we are better off when people do not remember a past that never existed.

And that is where the much-maligned millennials come in.  I was speaking with a twenty-something recently, and I was surprised to be asked this question: "Was the Berlin wall there to keep people from going in both directions?"  After some further discussion, it became clear that this person had no idea how bad things were under a Stalinist regime, so the idea that one side was keeping people in, rather than keeping its enemies out, simply did not compute.

Now, I am the first to say that this is in one sense horrifying.  My mind went immediately to the predictable responses from someone of my age group: "What's wrong with our schools?  Kids don't know about political terror and gulags?  They don't even know that the Soviet system suffered from chronic shortages?  This is shocking."  The argument over what to call the Soviet system -- communist, socialist, Stalinist, or whatever -- is one thing, but the historical evidence is clear regarding the horrors of that system, and we rightly expect that even young people would know about them.  Although I am relating only one conversation, this level of historical ignorance is reportedly quite widespread among younger people.

As I noted above, however, this historical ignorance truly is a blessing in the current circumstances.  The Republicans' scare campaign depends on two steps: (1) Associating Democrats with socialism, and (2) Counting on everyone to be horrified by the idea of socialism.

Krugman's point is that Republicans themselves have made step (2) less reliable through overuse of step (1) -- if everything is socialism except the currently unacceptable (especially to young people) status quo, maybe socialism isn't so bad -- and my additional point is that step (2) is simply not scary to people who are ignorant of the history that Republicans are wrongly trying to hang on Democrats as a matter of guilt by association.

To be clear, it would be better if young people could say, "I know how bad things were under the Soviet regime, but that's not socialism in any sense that American Democrats favor."  If, instead, they say, "I don't know what socialism is, but I also don't know to be scared of it," then that is enough to stop the Republicans' ranting about socialism from working.  If young people were fully informed, it would not work, either.

Republicans are counting on young voters to be only half-uninformed, gullibly believing the lie that Democrats are Stalinists but knowing why that would be bad if it were true.

This matters because the midterms and 2020 will be all about turnout.  New data have confirmed that 2016 was determined by low turnout among voters, especially young people and nonwhite voters of all ages.  If the Republicans' have nothing better than old red-baiting tactics, then they will simply be preaching to their relatively small choir.

In the column that I wrote in Verdict immediately before the 2016 election, I exhorted young people to get out and vote, saving the future for themselves and the younger and unborn generations who will suffer the consequences of Trumpism and Republican extremism.  Too many younger voters stayed home, but now they have another chance.  I hope they come through this time.


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

[This comment is in two parts, owing to its length.]

There exists, within both the classical and “reconstructed” Liberal tradition (which of course is not identical to the liberalism of contemporary Democrats), a preference for socialism beginning with John Stuart Mill. Consider, for example, the reasons John Stuart Mill viewed “the increasing impact of [capitalist] economic interests on public life and popular morality as a serious threat to liberty” in his normative critique of capitalism. Democratic principles of self-government, in the end, are not consistent with nor do they cohere well with capitalism. Mill “believed that a consumerist ethic and pervasive class interests were responsible for the moral and political weaknesses of capitalist society” [the converse of Bernard Mandeville’s defense of capitalism]. In the concise and exquisite summary provided by Nadia Urbinati, “Mill was a Marxist in reverse [this part is not wholly accurate, but we’ll leave that aside]. He interpreted socialism as an extension of self-government in the social realm to break the chain of fear and poverty that prevented individuals belonging to ‘the subordinate classes’ from enjoying liberty as both security and autonomy.” See Urbinati’s treatment of this topic in her book, Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

After Mill, we have the quintessential pragmatist American philosopher, John Dewey, whose democratic sensibilities were impeccable. Dewey’s “reconstructed Liberalism” invokes democratic values, principles, and practices by way of overcoming the constraints and constrictions of “capitalist democracy” (be it the liberal, corporatist or social democratic welfare state) in an argument for socialism. Capitalist democracy, over time, becomes more capitalist than democratic in both structure and ethos, as the imperatives and power of capital (hence capitalists) begin to intrude into every nook and cranny of personal and public life. Only a consistent and coherent democratic socialism can resurrect the core values of Liberalism, as it gives meaning and expression to a democratic way of life which is essential to enhancing our individual and collective welfare and well-being. It may also prove conductive to personal fulfillment and widespread opportunities for self-realization if not eudaimonia.

Joe said...

I recently found a good show from Denmark -- Borgen -- which portrays the election of the first woman PM there as well as various political battles and media happenings.

The "socialist" trolling is based on sand but scare tactics often are successful. This was seen the success in tarring Obama, whose economic policy druthers seriously bother some strong liberal types, as a "socialist."

Our nation has many "socialist" policies that once upon a time would be quite controversial. "Socialist" however is more scare word than substantive label in many cases.

I don't know how much Never Trump types will be honest brokers here but it's fine to put them to the test. Some conservatives do feel an obligation to be honest. Liberals have their own duties at times on that front.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

[Part 2 of previous comment]

Finally, we arrive at John Rawls, whose conception of “justice as fairness” translates, in his later work, into a preference for liberal democratic socialism, trumping both welfare state capitalism and what he terms (after the British economist James Meade) “property-owning” democracy as evidenced in his book, Justice as Fairness: Restatement (Harvard University Press, 2001). For a reconstruction of the basic argument, see William A. Edmundson’s John Rawls: Reticent Socialist (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

In pointing out this socialist stream within the Liberal tradition, we need not deny the progressive features of capitalism, historically speaking, features which Marx famously appreciated in his critique. What it does say is that should we care to expand the sphere of human freedom in a way that does justice to our potential for and capacities of individuation, self-realization, and general emancipation, as well as enhance our attempts to provide for the general welfare and well-being of everyone (what used to be termed the ‘common good’), perhaps even considerably increase the likelihood of achieving individual self-fulfillment and eudaimonia (in the deepest sense), then we run up against the intolerable, unjustifiable, and inequitable conditions and constraints of capitalism. By way of overcoming these conditions and constraints, we discover the myriad reasons that political philosophers and theorists, activists, utopians, communitarians of yesteryear, anarchists, and untold others have proffered on behalf of a viable alternative, namely (liberal) democratic socialism, a socialism that extends not only the methods and processes of democracy, but also its ethos, principles, and values throughout social realm (thus well beyond the realm of conventional liberal politics).

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

There has been an abundant and vigorous American tradition of socialist (or communist) experimentation (which intrigued Marx and Engels, and the details of which they shared with their European colleagues and readers) and advocacy of sundry kinds. I will cite only three titles by way of giving a taste of this tradition:

• Case, John and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, eds. Co-ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (Pantheon Books, 1979).
• Nichols, John, The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism (Verso, 2011).
• Pitzer, Donald E., ed. America's Communal Utopias (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Shag from Brookline said...

The Huffington Post featured a political article by Zach Carteer on August 19, 2018 with the interesting title "For Fancy Racists, Classical Liberalism Offers Respect, Intrigue" available at:

Conservatives and libertarians toss out "classical liberalism" in challenging current day liberals and progressives, showing their support for "classical liberalism" and distinguishing it from current day liberalism/progressivism that they sometimes refer to as the "S" word, which can be extended to the "C" word. Conservatives and libertarians rely upon John Stuart Mill, John Locke and Adam Smith. Here's a tease paragraph from the article:

"Alas, the term 'classical liberal' would have been novel to Smith, Locke or Mill. Mill called himself a socialist, Locke called for a state ban on Catholicism, and Smith favored all manner of encroachments against the free market. The corporate radio gurus of political theory ― Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman ― popularized the notion that these thinkers represent a coherent, libertarian-esque school of thought in the 20th century."