Thursday, 16 April 2009

Socialism - By Request

Christine asked me to say a few words about the right's constant cries of "socialism" any time a Democrat dares to speak. Good idea!

Personally, I have two complementary theories about why this is not only silly but counterproductive for the Republicans.

Theory one is based around this fact: I am 35 years old. When the Berlin wall fell, I was a freshman in High School. So I've been a voting citizen for 5 presidential elections now and for my entire voting life, and for the four formative years before that the Soviet Union was over.

And yet, it seems to me like the Right uses the word "Socialism" in exactly the same way that it was used during the Cold War - that is, not only as a description of an economic system but as a shorthand way of saying "the enemies of America". But even though I was raised a cold war kid, I just don't see it that way. "Socialism" is no longer synonymous for me with just doesn't mean much of anything at all to me in terms of modern day threats, or even like a relevant argument to be having. No major force in the US is advocating Socialism right now, nor have they ever, nor is there an external force that goes by that name that sets me quaking in my boots.

So the whole thing seems antiquated to me, like the echoes of an old argument. If I feel that way, I'm guessing that most folks younger than me feel even more baffled by this argument - like some old codger jumping up and shouting "Gold standard! Gold standard!" The old All Hail Capitalism, Down With Socialism debate is done.

But on the other hand, maybe not.

Because theory two is based upon the fact that the Republicans appear to be inadvertantly mainstreaming the socialist terminology. It turns out, all the young folks know about socialism these days is that the Right Wing Looneys really hate it. And that makes it... rather appealing.

The young may now disdain Wall Street -- but what do they know of socialism, past and present? Who even speaks of socialism in America today? The answer, of course, is the demagogic right. According to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and their ilk, Obama is taking America down the Socialist Road. As Benjamin Sarlin has noted on the Web site the Daily Beast, the talkmeisters of the right have linked a doctrine that never commanded much support in America to a president whose approval rating hovers around 60 percent and much higher than that among the young.

Rush and his boys are doing what Gene Debs and his comrades never really could. In tandem with Wall Street, they are building socialism in America.

One must take a moment to admire the irony.

Of course, I'm sure lots of my Labour party readers will pop up to say that Socialism never was such a bad thing anyway. Fair enough. But that's the funny thing - I was never a Socialist. Apart from Bernie Sanders (bless his little cotton socks) none of us were in my lifetime. But now, the rhetoric of the right has actually perversely caused an entire generation to give the term (if not the ideology) a second look.

Personally, I still say it's a dead debate - classical laissez faire economics is dead, has been for generations, and pure Socialism has likewise snuffed it, expired, shuffled off this mortal coil.


christine said...

ooo, thanks for this!!! I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts on socialism.

I particularly found the quote mentioning the fact that those who are crying it (Hannity, Beck, etc) are the ones who are creating it intriguing.

Hope your back is better.

Scott Rogers said...

A couple of points that build on your comments on the right's embrace of branding their opponents as socialists:

1. I think the harm to the GOP as a party was more immediate than your analysis of longer-term message alienation from younger voters suggests. The whole "socialism" thing came out of nowhere late in a presidential campaign, and on behalf of a candidate who was already seen even by many of his likely supporters as an erratic geezer. By dredging up an attack that sounded like ancient history, and by doing so as a late-campaign non sequitur, the GOP reinforced their candidate's two greatest weaknesses in the public mind. John McCain: Crazy Old Man was the real message that the "socialist" attack gave independent voters in 2008.

2. However, somewhere between a sixth and a quarter of the electorate eats that socialist shit up. And while that may not be enough to win a presidential election under normal circumstances, a sufficiently motivated one-sixth minority can win control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election. The "Republican Revolution" of 1994, for example, won control of Congress with the votes of about one-sixth of registered voters.

3. Remember, the right is fundamentally informed by authoritarianism, so the most committed rightwingers really do believe that there must be some deliberate mover behind all events, whether seen or unseen. The "socialism" attack is of a piece with other rightwing paranoia about Obama that allows the authoritarian mind to explain Obama not as a politician with genuine appeal to a large and like-minded American majority, but rather a trickster who has pulled the wool over the eyes of citizens too lazy to see through the smoke and mirrors to Obama's true identity as a foreign, socialist, Muslim infiltrator. Conservative policies, whatever they happen to be on any given day, are self-evidently correct, or else the authorities who reveal policies to conservatives wouldn't be telling them to think that way, so the fact that the great mass of citizens disagrees is not due to deficient policies but to the personal popularity of the opposition's leader(s). This idea that if one could simply eliminate one or two leaders of the opposing party and the public would instantly fall in line with conservative policies is much more comforting to the authoritarian mind on the right than the reality that three-fourths of their fellow citizens have examined conservative ideas and found them wanting.