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The Ism Dismalest of All

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary (long version)

Oct. 29, 2008

The most striking thing about the McCain campaign's claim that Obama is a socialist is that they had to thrash through so many other charges before they got around to it. Obama is inexperienced, he's all talk, he's a defeatist, he's an out-of-touch elitist, he's a celebrity. He'll say anything to get elected, he hangs out with a former terrorist. Then finally: Oh, and did we mention he's a socialist?

The time was when that was always the first charge Republicans turned to when someone proposed increasing the role or power of government. The income tax, child labor laws, social security, FDIC, the Civil Rights Act of 1948 -- to Republicans they were all either "socialistic" or "creeping socialism," a phrase coined by the Republican Thomas Dewey in 1939. Democrats found this maddening -- in 1952, Harry Truman called socialism a scare word and said that when a Republican said "Down with socialism!" he really meant "Down with progress!"

But it was only with the eclipse of liberalism and the decline and break-up of international communism that the charges of socialism began to yield to a new anti-big-government rhetoric in Republicans' public pronouncements. Ronald Reagan taught the Republicans that the Washington bureaucrat can be made to look scary enough without having to paint him as a incipient commissar. These days, "creeping socialism" has been consigned to the dustbin of history, and socialistic is heard mostly on talk radio and in conservative blogs. True, Republicans routinely raise the danger of socialized medicine. But as best I can tell, neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney has ever used the words socialist or socialism in the context of American politics while they were in office, nor do you hear the words anymore at Republican Party conventions.[1]

Frequency of socialistic in New York Times articles, by decade:

So why was the McCain campaign tempted to resuscitate the words? It may be that liberal has been so saturated with effete cultural stereotypes that it didn't have enough impact when the conversation turned to economics. Or maybe socialist itself has become so unusual in electoral politics that it has started to sound sinister and exotic. You could have that impression when you hear the calls of "He's a socialist!" when Obama is mentioned at McCain and Palin rallies. It's hard to imagine people at Democratic rallies yelling "He's a supply-sider!" when McCain's name comes up.

The politically engaged on both sides have tended to interpret the charge literally. Conservatives parse Obama's statements to discern any traces of Marxist ideology; liberals ridicule the idea that increasing the marginal tax rate by three percent somehow crosses the line to collectivism. But this isn't about definitions: Sarah Palin can say "now is not the time to experiment with socialism" at the same time the ticket is endorsing the partial nationalization of the banks and urging Congress to buy up troubled mortgages.

It has been more than 70 years since anybody thought that socialism might be a serious political alternative in America, and since then the power of the S-word has been symbolic, not substantive. As Walter Lippmann once put it, it's one of those words that are meant to "assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas." To most Americans, the emotions that socialism stirs up have always had less to do with political theories than with the eclectic cast of characters the word has brought to mind from one era to the next: bomb-throwing radicals, supercillious parlor pinks, insidious subversives, Soviet thugs, third-world guerillas, pretentious French intellectuals.

To Joe the Plumber and a lot of other people, the thought of socialism is still chilling -- the ism dismalest of all, as the Chad Mitchell Trio put it in a 1962 song. But these days that specter doesn't haunt many people who aren't party to the conversations of the right.

Earlier this year the Harvard School of Public Health reported the results of a survey of American attitudes about socialized medicine. It turned out that more people said that socialized medicine would improve the health care system than said it would make things worse. And among people under 35, the proportion of those who approved of socialized medicine was almost two to one. Not that most of those people have a clear undertanding of socialized medicine, or of socialism itself for that matter. Americans have always been a little fuzzy on that concept (these days, it seems as if Europeans are, too). But if you were seven years old when the Berlin Wall fell, the word socialism probably isn't going to sound very toxic -- you're more likely to think of Tony Blair's England than the Soviet gulags.

Alexis de Tocqueville said that the last thing a party abandons is its language. But it doesn't happen all at once. I think of what linguists call hearth languages: those dying tongues that are no longer used in the wider world but are still spoken by old women around the kitchen table. The left has a hearth language of its own, the discarded limbs of the heyday of liberalism. Fifty or sixty years ago, no Democrat could finish a speech without denouncing the Republicans as reactionaries. Now the word is barely a tenth as frequent in the press as it was then, and it doesn't appear at all in the pages that the Democratic National Committee posts at its web site (it pops up in a few reader comments). But it still gets thousands of hits at sites like the Huffington Post and Daily Kos, where liberals keep it on life support.

Frequency of reactionar* in New York Times articles, by decade:

The hearth language of the right is where you find the vocabulary of old-guard anti-communism preserved in aspic -- bolshevik, cradle-to-grave, socialistic.  Or take class warfare, another item that has lately re-appeared. It's still the first term that conservatives reach for whenever Democrats suggest that the wealthy aren't paying their share. But it has been a long time since it could conjure up images of workers in cloth caps throwing up barricades in the street.  

Frequency of "Class Warfare" in Major Papers: 1988-2003

Surveying the debris of the Soviet empire in 1991, Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, announced: "Communism is over. And that means that anticommunism is over, too." Lingustically, it has taken a while for that to sink in.

1. Among Republican national figures, Rudy Giuliani has been the most enthusiastic about using the "socialist" label -- in 2007, he charged Hillary Clinton with supporting socialism, and on "Meet the Press" in September, he said that Obama has "almost socialist" notions -- a charge that's routinely made on right-wing talk shows and in conservative blogs and columns. But it's notable that Giuliani didn't use the word in his speech at the Republican National Convention, and in fact the words socialism and socialist don't appear in any of the pages posted at the site of the Republican National Comittee (excluding reader comments). Return

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.