Democratic Leaders’ Craven “Socialism” Vote Is a Symptom of Political Cluelessness
For decades now, the Right has rallied around more or less the same reductive and Manichean narrative of American politics. In one corner — or so successive generations of reactionaries from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump have insisted — stand the forces of freedom and liberty; in the other, adherents to a creeping, tyrannical, and godless ideology bent on strangling the American way of life. In defining and identifying the latter, the Right has never been especially discriminating. “Socialism,” at least in the hands of your average Republican politician, can in fact be applied to almost anything if partisan conservatives are opposed to it.
In 2018, Mitch McConnell deemed strong borders the opposite of “socialism.” During the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s rather tepid strategy for health care reform was branded as “socialism now or later” by Newt Gingrich, who declared it a plan to seize “control of the health care system and centralize power in Washington.” The Obama-era Affordable Care Act, whose architects ironically drew inspiration from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, was similarly denounced. While running against Barack Obama in 2008, the late John McCain deemed his opponent’s tax plan “socialist,” adding, “at least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives.” At a 2005 event in honor of Ayn Rand, future House speaker Paul Ryan warned that Social Security represented a “collectivist system” that, if preserved, would inevitably lead to socialist tyranny.
Pejorative use of the label, of course, goes back much further.
Barry Goldwater once wrote to Lyndon B. Johnson urging him not to “embrace the socialist platform” of his party by running alongside John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy first unveiled the legislation that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act, conservative opponents branded it as socialist. In a 1930s speech denouncing Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, former presidential candidate and New York governor Al Smith declared: “There can be only one Capital — Washington or Moscow . . . There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes, or the red flag of the godless union of the Soviet. There can be only one national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale.”
All of this is to say nothing of McCarthy-era red-baiting or the widespread use of the same tactic to justify the repression and criminalization of actual socialists. Regardless, what matters here is that the Right’s long-standing use of the label has been defined by its virtually boundless applicability and thus near-total incoherence as an actual political descriptor. Which brings us to the ludicrous, GOP-sponsored resolution condemning “the horrors of socialism” that this week passed the House of Representatives by a whopping margin, with the support of some 109 congressional Democrats. True to form, the resolution’s text links socialist ideology to a range of atrocities and to regimes and administrations that functionally had quite little in common, concluding with the proposition: “That Congress denounces socialism in all its forms, and opposes the implementation of socialist policies in the United States of America.”
Intellectually, it’s a total mess — full of bad and incomplete history. (Pol Pot, for example, is name-dropped, with the critical details that the United States played a significant role in his ascent to power and offered support for his regime predictably omitted.) As Ben Burgis has pointed out, authoritarian concentrations of power have occurred in countries identified as both socialist and capitalist, and plenty of the policies socialists traditionally advocate are actually concerned with democratic decentralization. Countries with far more redistributive states and collective ownership of wealth, such as Sweden and Norway, also boast high levels of civil and political freedom — quite clearly demonstrating that the presence of the former does not necessarily imply the absence of the latter.
In a sense, however, there’s always been a deeper coherence at work in this genre of left-punching: namely, to brand everything from the most bloodlessly technocratic liberal reforms to popular and commonsense social democratic policies like free tuition or Medicare for All as inevitable steps toward authoritarianism. Historically speaking, one of the principal objectives of red-baiting has been to defang and neutralize not only socialism and social democracy in their various forms but liberalism as well.
With that very fact in mind, liberals have periodically sought to inoculate themselves by performatively distancing themselves from the Left. Some, of course, come by that posture honestly. The likes of Hakeem Jeffries (who condemned the GOP resolution as a “cover” for an “extreme MAGA agenda” before dutifully voting for it this week), Nancy Pelosi, and Jim Clyburn (both also Yeas) are all openly hostile to even moderate social democracy and ideologically committed to preserving the institutions undergirding American inequality. More progressive liberals, like California congressman Ro Khanna, apparently calculate that by eschewing the label, they will somehow be better placed to champion things like free college and Medicare for All (Khanna’s own vote to denounce “the horrors of socialism” should raise more than a few eyebrows, given his role as a two-time presidential campaign surrogate for the only democratic socialist in the US Senate and his willingness to be interviewed by this very magazine.)
Regardless, House Democrats who opted to side with the GOP’s absurd resolution — progressive, centrist, and conservative alike — effectively endorsed the long-standing right-wing narrative of American politics. In doing so, they not only undermined their own positions — you can bet that GOP lawmakers will continue to brand everything even an inch to the left of Attila the Hun as Stalinist, notwithstanding who voted Yea on a resolution that will be forgotten a week from now — but engaged in the most basic kind of political error. Accepting your opponent’s premise or conceding their rhetorical frame is a more or less guaranteed way to lose any debate.
There are, of course, plenty of good and noninstrumental reasons to embrace rather than run away from the socialist label. If nothing else, two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns that vastly outperformed conventional expectations are as good a sign as any that ordinary people are in fact much less scared of it than some would like us to believe. In any case, Democrats who voted Yea this week failed to grasp a very basic reality of politics concisely summed up by Khanna’s colleague Pramila Jayapal: “However you vote on this bill, they’re going to use it against you, so it doesn’t really matter.”
[Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin.]
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