You are probably so used to hearing the epithets “socialist”, “commie”, “radical”, etc. from our Republican friends that you don’t even bother to think about why they call us that in the first place.
So consider this: It’s been a whopping 22 years since the Berlin Wall fell. China is in many ways more capitalist than we are these days and anyone who actually considers Cuba a serious threat is smoking something way more potent than cigars.
The best examples we have of semi-socialist ideas incorporated into democratic capitalist systems like our own are in Western Europe — you know, like those poor, oppressed, suffering Scandinavians.
In short, the threat of world communist revolution sweeping over us in the foreseeable future is, shall we say, rather unlikely.
So why, in this day and age, so much talk of socialism? I think the reason is fundamentally strategic. Repubs gain and keep power through the unlikely feat of harnessing populist fervor to support elitist, corporate interests. In order to prevent Democrats from stealing their populist thunder, conservative propagandists must ensure that Dems and progressive strategists do not propose a program of economic empowerment for the lower and middle classes.
And how to do that? Why, you have to scare Democrats away from even thinking about such a thing. You have to brand all forms of economic populism, and all policies that may help anyone other than the upper classes, as “socialist”.
For this ploy to work, Dems and their supporters have to take the bait. They have to be so terrified of being labeled as socialists that they’re willing to sell out their principles and tone down their rhetoric to make sure that no one could ever imagine such a thing.
If this all sounds ridiculous, well…that’s because it is. The whole thing is as pitiful as the “little man behind the curtain” in the Wizard of Oz – except for the unfortunate fact that, in this case, he hasn’t been fully exposed yet. And that’s the problem. Democrats need to spend more time explicitly understanding, dissecting and attacking the nonsensical brew of ideology and propaganda that allows any remotely sane person to think that someone like Barack Obama could be the intellectual heir of Lenin, Stalin and Mao (as so many Tea Party posters and PhotoShopped pictures have presented him).
The best description I’ve seen of how conservatives manage to pull off this travesty remains Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” – even 7 years after he wrote it. He appropriately compared the support of so many Main Street Americans for the Republican party to “a French Revolution in reverse – one in which the sans-culottes pour down the street demanding more power for the aristocracy.” And he vividly describes how conservatives pull off this feat – by getting large percentages of the lower classes to vote against their economic interests in favor of what they are led to believe are their cultural interests.
This feat is achieved through the relentless blathering of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, etc. leading the “Great Backlash” against alleged liberal cultural elites. At the heart of this never-ending propaganda blitz is what Frank called “the latte libel: the suggestion that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences and that these tastes and preferences reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism.”
And this caricature is purposely promoted to perpetuate a myth, namely: “Our culture and our schools and our government…are controlled by an overeducated ruling class that is contemptuous of the beliefs and practices of the masses of ordinary people.”
It is this myth, and the jealousy and fury it stokes among average Americans, that is used to turn so many working class people against their own economic interests in support of the interests of millionaires and billionaires to protect their wealth from higher taxes and their business interests from regulation. This despite the fact that the richest 10% of Americans control two-thirds of the country’s net worth – kindly leaving the bottom third for the other 90% of us to fight over.
The last election may well have been the culmination of this phenomenon, when the Koch brothers (through groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks) stimulated the grassroots phenomenon of the Tea Party to support cutting government programs that help the lower and middle classes to the bone while expanding tax cuts for the super-rich. The common sense idea of “living within our means” is now used to support the gargantuan reverse Robin Hood transfer of wealth proposed by Paul Ryan’s “Pull the Plug on Medicare” plan.
While some may argue that the Tea Party phenomenon is different for its focus on economic rather than social issues, the fact is that its support for Republicans is solidly built upon the years of cultural estrangement that the prophets of the right wing have built up between “ordinary” Americans and progressives.
Voters have to be convinced that Obama and the Democrats are effete, socialist snobs in order to be scared away from even considering the moderate Democratic proposals that might actually make their lives easier if allowed to pass. Programs to improve health care must be labeled a violation of liberty; legislation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect us from climate change must be characterized as burdensome energy taxes rooted in shadowy conspiracies; and all of it of course is thrust upon the backs of already overtaxed working people.
They have to call us socialist, because they are afraid that if they don’t, the common folk might actually like our not-so-socialist ideas.
I’m really starting to wonder if, instead of shrinking in horror from the “socialist” label, it might actually be time to kinda, sorta embrace it. I could imagine a poster or video campaign saying “Yeah, I’m socialist”, with views of people in Sweden, France and other social democracies laughing in cafes, enjoying their free health care and their demonstrably superior standard of living.
Maybe that would be going too far. But Democrats need to find a way to overcome our terror of being labeled as communists for simply wanting to use government to improve the lives of most people. The Republicans have very real strategic interests in calling us socialist. It’s time to turn the tables on them, and leave the little man behind the curtain exposed for all his pitiful phoniness.