Conservatives’ scare tactics on ‘socialism’ are dishonest
In 1961, America faced what conservatives considered a mortal threat: calls for a national health insurance program covering senior citizens. In an attempt to avert this awful fate, the American Medical Association launched what it called Operation Coffee Cup, a pioneering attempt at viral marketing.
Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing Medicare.
Obviously, the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.
And so it was that Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, briefly turned from his usual warnings about scary brown people to warnings about the threat from socialism.
What do Trump’s people, or conservatives in general, mean by “socialism”? The answer is, it depends.
Sometimes it means any kind of economic liberalism. Other times, however, it means Soviet-style central planning, or Venezuela-style nationalization of industry, never mind the reality that there is essentially nobody in American political life who advocates such things.
The trick — and “trick” is the right word — involves shuttling between these utterly different meanings, and hoping that people don’t notice. You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine!
So let’s talk about what’s really on the table.
What Americans who support “socialism” actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: A market economy, but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark, not Venezuela.
And in case you haven’t been there, the Nordic countries are not, in fact, hellholes. They have somewhat lower GDP per capita than we do, but that’s largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have higher life expectancy, much less poverty and significantly higher overall life satisfaction.
Oh, and they have high levels of entrepreneurship — because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know they won’t lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail.
What about the slippery slope from liberalism to totalitarianism? There’s absolutely no evidence that it exists. Medicare didn’t destroy freedom.
So scaremongering over socialism is both silly and dishonest. But will it be politically effective?
Probably not. After all, voters overwhelmingly support most of the policies proposed by American “socialists,” including higher taxes on the wealthy and making Medicare available to everyone.
On the other hand, we should never discount the power of dishonesty. Right-wing media will portray whomever the Democrats nominate as the second coming of Leon Trotsky, and millions will believe them. Let’s just hope that the rest of the media report the clean little secret of American socialism, which is that it isn’t radical at all.