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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Socialism for Mavericks: To Each According to his Greed

Socialism for Mavericks: To Each According to his Greed
Image © Austin Cline
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I suspect that the cry of "socialism" may be John McCain's final attack on Barack Obama. There is plenty of time left to try something else, and the strategy with the best chance for actually achieving something is probably the promotion of a "divided government" rather than a government dominated by Democrats (just look at how well McCain's own "divided campaign" is working for him). As far as more personal attacks go, though, I believe that calling Obama a socialist and his policies socialism mark the McCain campaign's last gasp. It's not necessarily a futile one, though, because it's an accusation that resonates deeply with Americans.

As an aside, can anyone name a single criticism made by John McCain against Barack Obama which can qualify as substantive and issues-based? McCain and his minions have, directly or indirectly, accused Obama of: being a socialist, consorting with terrorists, supporting infanticide, being inexperienced, being elitist, being a Muslim, being Arab, being the Antichrist, and so forth. These are all ad hominem attacks and none speak directly to how Barack Obama will or will not perform as President of the United States. I read or heard somewhere that conservatism was supposed to be about ideas, but these are "ideas" we can do without.

Just about every Republican political campaign accuses Democrats of socialism and communism in some fashion, though they rarely come out and actually use such labels anymore. Instead, they usually rely on codes like "big government" and expect voters to get the message. Now that the alleged virtues of "small government" are out of fashion, new words for the same idea have to be found. What makes this attack interesting is just how bizarre and contrary to reality it is – not that any of his other personal attacks have exactly been "reality based," but the charge of socialism is so much further removed from reality that it almost makes all his earlier campaign moves seem rational by comparison.

Of course, by any educated and informed perspective (read: elitist, and therefore irrelevant), none of Barack Obama's policies come anywhere close to "socialism." He's just about as far removed from socialism as John McCain himself is, but that doesn't matter. Few of McCain's supporters actually know what socialism is. This includes the intelligent ones (I recently had a conversation with a man whose career was tied to finance and investments, yet he sincerely believed that socialism and communism were the same thing) as well as the not-so-intelligent ones (I saw a man interviewed by the BBC who said America had been fighting against socialism "since 1776"). They also don't care.

For conservative Republicans, "socialism" isn't so much a label for a particular economic theory or a set of economic policies as it is a code word for godlessness over Christianity, racial and economic equality over white, Protestant domination, collective action over individualism, internationalism over American exceptionalism, and so forth. Earlier, related complaints about "welfare" had the added benefit of being implied attacks on racial equality and giving blacks a chance at getting out of poverty.

Communism is generally taken to mean about the same thing, only a bit more extreme in terms of being anti-American, so I'm surprised that Obama hasn't been more explicitly labeled a communist as well. Trashing others as "red" in some fashion is an old and reliable Republican tactic that hasn't been made explicitly in many years. Maybe McCain is pining for the good old days when open, unapologetic red-baiting was more commonplace?

This is certainly why it doesn't matter to McCain that he hasn't pointed to anything in Obama that is "socialist" which hasn't also been promoted and/or supported in the past by Republicans like Ronald Reagan and...John McCain himself. John McCain derides tax credits as "socialist" even though Ronald Reagan described the Earned Income Tax Credit as the "single greatest anti-poverty measure" in America (and so increased it). John McCain's own health care proposals rely heavily on tax credits. Progressive taxation has been a feature of the American income tax system since there has been an income tax, and taxing the wealthy more than the poor is neccesary to any just political system. But so what?

Complaints about "socialism" aren't a serious, substantive criticism of any of Obama's policies. And frankly, I doubt many conservatives know any more about those policies than they do about socialism; instead, they are just an attempt to attack Obama as "the other" – liberal, educated, black, concerned about poverty, concerned about race, etc. Accusing someone of being a socialist is a means by which conservatives can give the impression that they are making a serious criticism while in reality just attacking someone for being too "different."

Conservative voters aren't really fooled by this; on the contrary, they are fully complicit in the tactic by not caring whether those being attacked are genuine socialists and simply responding to the dog whistle as their political masters have trained them to do. They don't want to like people who are too "other," and they certainly don't want to vote for them. Conservative politicians give them the perfect excuse with complaints about socialism or welfare: voters have the opportunity to vote their baser, bigoted prejudices while pretending that they are really moral, decent citizens.

Note: The General wants you to know that he can in no way be held responsible for the material contained in this post. I, Austin Cline, have to take sole responsibility for this sermon. The General only let me start posting here to give you a chance to find me (that, and because of those photos I have safely locked away in a safety deposit box), but after two years you still haven't succeeded, have you? Hah!

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