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Think Again: Chiller, Socialist Theater

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A heated debate broke out last week over the degree to which incendiary talk by right-wing cable and radio hosts might be fueling a recent spate of murderous violence by disturbed individuals.

We’d like to take a moment to focus on the just plain crazy. Have you noticed that in conservative world, this administration is leading a march on socialism? That’s right, the one that refuses to nationalize the banks against the recommendations of Alan Greenspan, among others; the one that has offered gazillions of dollars to bail out private interests run into the ground by billionaires; the one that, on Wednesday, did not even take strong action to regulate the derivative market, which as much as anything helped cause this crisis. No, really…

Just last week alone, Media Matters counted more than 143 mentions of the words “socialism,” “socialist,” and “socialistic” on the cable news shows—and that’s not including words like “communist or “Marxist.” The word socialist has virtually become an everyday talking point since the Obama administration moved in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lest you think we exaggerate:

  • Fox and Friends graded Obama’s economic plan with an “S” for socialism.
  • Pat Robertson warned that, “before long, we’ll have this gigantic socialist colossus.”
  • Radio personality Michael Savage called Obama a “neo-Marxist fascist dictator in the making,” and said that Obama “dreams of Maoist revolution” with “death camps.”
  • Actor Jon Voight sat down Bill O’Reilly and accused Obama of “bringing us to chaos and socialism,” and then suggested that he—yes, we’re still talking about the actor—might do a better job negotiating with North Korea.
  • Glenn Beck called Obama a Marxist and said that we’re on the road to socialism. Later, he noted that we are stepping beyond socialism and heading toward fascism.
  •  Sean Hannity met with Sarah Palin in a wooded area for a heart-to-heart and suggested —and she agreed—that Obama was leading the country toward certain socialism. Hannity has in the past crowned Obama the “Commissar in Chief,” renamed America the “United States of France,” and claimed that, “America is moving from a free-market economy to a Socialist economy.” On the eve of the infamous tea parties, he asked Newt Gingrich: “Is this now a battle between capitalism and socialism?” In case you were wondering, Newt didn’t say no, but recently, Hannity answered his own question, declaring that “the Bolsheviks have finally arrived!” He also praised congressional Republicans for finally using “the S-word.”

Branding the United States of America as the newest socialist republic is not just a job for mentally unbalanced and/or drug-and-alcohol addicted cable “news” hosts. The Republican National Committee also held a special session recently to try and rebrand the Democratic party as the Democratic Socialist Party. (It was narrowly defeated.)

What’s more:

  • Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) called the president’s policies “a new American socialist experiment.”
  • Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN)—both politician and madwoman combined—said that “if you look at FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama, this is really the final leap towards socialism.”
  • Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) called Obama the “the world’s best salesmen of socialism.”
  • Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said he believes the Obama administration is taking the country down the road to socialism.
  • Newt Gingrich said Obama’s agenda was the “boldest effort to create a European socialist model we have seen.”

Well, you get the point…

The socialist scare tactic may appear to be just one more desperate grasp from a conservative opposition that—let’s face it—hasn’t got much going these days. But it is really a reprise of tried and true scare-tactics past.

We saw a bit of it just a few years ago when conservatives were in the majority in Congress. Former House majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) wrote that New Deal and the Great Society, on the one hand, and Soviet Russia’s five-year plans and Communist China’s Great Leap Forward, on the other, were created by “the same sort of person” separated only by differences of “power and nerve.” Before that, Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) compared “liberals” to “scoundrels like Hitler,” who were also “much like communists.”

But we’ve been hearing this sort of thing for better part of three-quarters of a century now. Back in 1947, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce accused the Truman administration of taking a “backroad to socialism” in the fast lane toward a “police state.”

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg notes that the tactic has been “part of the Republican lexicon for years and years. Any time the Democrats proposed any legislation on child labor, social security, the [conservatives] immediately cried socialism—to the point where in 1952 Harry Truman said that when you hear someone saying ‘down with socialism,’ they really mean ‘down with progress.’”

This is working to some degree. Lawrence O’Donnell has pointed out that only 6 percent of Americans used the word socialist to describe President Obama back in September 2008, but by April 2009 that number had grown to 20 percent. But like most everything—particularly given the collapse of the Soviet Union and Chinese embrace of capitalism—socialism as a scare tactic ain’t what it used to be.

For instance, the Harvard School of Public Health reported in February 2008 that a majority of Americans support what they called “socialized medicine.” And a recent Rasmussen poll found some decidedly mixed feelings among the electorate about just how scary socialism might be after all. Its questioners found that 20 percent of people prefer socialism to capitalism and 27 percent couldn’t make up their minds. Adults under 30 were evenly divided, presaging, perhaps, a genuine socialist-style future for the children of crazy cable hosts one day.

You just can’t have an effective red scare with numbers like these,” the Washington Monthly’s Steven Benen observes. “Perhaps ‘capitalism’ lost some of its appeal when our economy collapsed. Maybe a lot of people heard the media connect Obama and ‘socialism,’ and since they like the president, they figure socialism can’t be that bad. In a similar vein, if right-wing blowhards like Limbaugh keep screaming that socialism is manifestly evil, there may be some who assume the economic model must have merit.”

CAP’s Matthew Yglesias adds that these studies reflect “the fact that on a basic level ‘socialism’ is good branding. The whole idea is that we should put society first rather than capital, or money.” Recognizing this, Saul Anuzis, former Michigan GOP chairman who ran for the national chairmanship this year—said that conservatives ought to stop calling Obama a socialist since, “it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.” Borrowing a beat from the noted political philosopher, Jonah Goldberg, Anuzis recommends that conservatives accuse liberals of favoring “fascism” instead.

Well, maybe. And we promise to keep you posted. But in the meantime, let’s give the last word to—and some free advice to conservatives from—Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride:You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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