As we all know, one of the right wing’s favorite tactics these days is to call anybody to the left of Ben Nelson a socialist, a fascist, or some such nonsense. The latest to point out the absurdity of these claims is, of all people, David Brooks, who wrote last week about a debate he had with Congressional Representative Paul Ryan about whether or not President Obama’s plan is to turn the United States into a quasi-socialist welfare state.
The real function of these claims is to fully discredit any actually progressive or – gasp – left-wing policy proposals. After all, as we saw earlier this year, if Obama is a socialist (AND a fascist!) for wanting all Americans to buy health insurance from for-profit corporations, then any truly progressive proposals (national health insurance, single-payer plans) are off-the-charts-radical, and simply political non-starters.
These tactics aren’t new, and if we fail to see their historical precedents, we’ll underestimate the importance of countering these claims and rebuilding an actual American left.
In one of my all-time favorite history books, Many Are the Crimes, Ellen Schrecker writes about how McCarthy-era anticommunism decimated American liberalism. And by “liberalism,” I mean something very different from “left-wing.” Of course McCarthyism destroyed the American left, and you can read Schrecker’s book to find out all about that too. But by planting the fear of being called “communist” in every politician, activist, intellectual, and artist who dared to suggest that the government had a responsibility to protect and promote the social welfare of its citizens, McCarthyist repression closed off a whole realm of political debate. Labor unions, African-Americans, government officials, professors, artists, writers, and movie producers all moderated their political stances to prevent the accusation – against which there was no effective defense – that they harbored Communist inclinations.
As Schrecker concludes, after McCarthyism, “Movements and ideas that had once been acceptable were now beyond the pale….The disappearance of the communist movement weakened American liberalism. Because its adherents were now on the left of the politial spectrum, instead of at its center, they had less room in which to maneuver.” McCarthyism, she argues, “showed how effectively political repression could operate within a democratic society.”
At the very least, this should tell us about the importance of continuing to articulate and argue for a truly progressive, even sometimes radical, vision of a just society. When we admit that those visions are off the table, even the centrist visions (extend the Bush tax cuts only on income up to $250,000!) somehow, magically and absurdly, become too radical to succeed. We cannot be so scared of being called names that we fail to put forward reasonable, just, and hopeful proposals.
[Because I’m a historian, I have to give some citations:
Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), especially Chapter 10, “’A Good Deal of Trauma’: The Impact of McCarthyism.” Quotes from pp. 412, 413.]