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.