by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
National polls show two things that are cause for joy and concern for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and probably Elizabeth Warren too. One poll shows Sanders in a virtual dead heat for the party nomination with Joe Biden, with Warren not too far behind. The other poll, really many polls, have been remarkably consistent on one issue. That is that a majority of Americans, exclusive of millennials, don’t want a socialist in the White House. In fact, in the pecking order of traits that most Americans list as the ones that would most turn them off, being a socialist rank at rock bottom.
Trump and the GOP, and Fox News certainly don’t need any polls to energize their flock and terrorize Americans with the supposed horror of having a socialist in the Oval office. That didn’t start with the emergence of Sanders and Warren as viable presidential contenders. The tar of a Democrat as a Red was in full swing with Obama. The twin hits on him were first he was a closet Muslim terrorist, and close behind, a pinko.
There were millions of references, quotes, quips, comments, and notations on Google tarring Obama as a socialist. Just enough voters bought the lie and slander about Obama’s alleged red taint to make him and the Democrats squirm. The difference though is there was absolutely nothing in Obama’s modest, moderate and very centrist pro-business economic policy to make anyone with an ounce of a brain cell believe there was any truth to the lie.
With Sanders and Warren have not only not brushed off the socialist hits on them but in Sanders case have proudly embraced it. In Warren’s case, she’s piled on policy after policy that smacks of a frontal attack on the dominance of wealth, bankers and corporations. That has prompted a worried Obama to tactfully without mentioning them by name gravely warn that the Democrats could blow it all in 2020 with stuff that’s perceived as far far left by the general electorate.
So, that brings it back to Sanders, and whether it really is the non-starter that polls say socialism is and just why, if true, that is still the old red herring for so many Americans who don’t wear the GOP party label?
“Socialist” is a loaded term that has always touched a raw nerve with many Americans who have been in a fog on what socialism is and how it works as a system. The old Cold War image for decades of a socialist drilled home images of Lenin and Joe Stalin, bloody dictators, gulags, and totalitarianism. This has been more than enough to put a deathly scare in most Americans. To many, a socialist is someone who is pro-union, pro-increased government spending on health and education programs, and pro-civil liberties and especially civil rights. This always drew fire from the right. During the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was routinely smeared as a communist and socialist.
The mildest criticism of big business and the wealthy insure a slap on of the socialist tag. The American economic sacred cow is that laissez-faire wealth is tantamount to a divine right of kings, and any attempt to touch it is economic heresy. Politicians have long known that it’s the kiss of death to be seen as an advocate for tax and income fairness. That invites being plastered with the socialist tag.
Any talk of putting more wealth into the hands of the non-wealthy in the way of tax cuts, a Social Security tax increase on upper-income wage earners, capital gain increases, and closing tax shelter loopholes is plainly regarded as wealth redistribution downward. During the 2008 presidential campaign, GOP presidential contender John McCain grabbed at the formula that GOP contenders traditionally use and hit Obama with it. In 2012, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney doubled down on pretty much the same theme when he fired up a coterie of his rich donors with the slur that Democrats get “47 percent” of the vote because they give away free stuff meaning a slew of government entitlement and welfare giveaways. He didn’t need to utter the word “socialist” to get his meaning across.
Hurling the damaging socialist label at Sanders and Warren is more than just a calculated political ploy to smear and taint them. It taps into the deeply held belief—and even fear—that they will actually mug the rich and by extension those who fantasize about being rich.
Sanders and Warren have done much to drive home that there’s much truth to that fear. The test for Sanders and Warren will be whether that alleged fear will doom them with many Americans when faced with the actual prospect of a socialist in the White House.
by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
(Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.)