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The contemporary rise of an insult within Congress

Socialism — the explosively popular boogey-term of the right

I think a lot about socialism. Not so much in the definitional sense, “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”, but rather in the political pejorative sense.

In 2009 I started DCinbox.com, a living database and archive of all official e-newsletters sent by sitting members of the House and Senate. Right as I embarked on this project, the debates about what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or Obamacare started in earnest. One of the first mentions of socialism in the database was from Congressman John Campell on November 2, 2009 when he wrote,

At this time, it wasn’t clear that Obamacare would be a more politically useful way to characterize the eventual health care bill, so variants of a Pelosi Health Care Bill such as the “Pelosi Socialized Medicine Bill” started to trickle into the database.

Thinking about 2009 GOP positions about socialized or government funded health care is sort of quaint during the 2020 COVID-19 time, when many Republican legislators are promising “free COVID-19 testing” and “free vaccines”. But the thrust of this piece it not to point out the functional 180 degree “socialist” policy turn Republicans have been willing to make in the last year like the government secured “Paycheck Protection Program” and other government provided business backstops, but rather to show that as a term “socialism” has been increasingly used on the right in official Congress to constituent communications and how the use has changed overtime.

Not “socialism”

From 2009–2012 Republicans in Congress warned constituents about the threat of looming socialism and the inevitable associated destruction of America that would come if Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and President Obama were able to secure a reform that allowed more people to find and keep health insurance. Rep Steve King of Iowa wrote,

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann echoed this after the final passage of the bill, telling constituents Obamacare couldn’t be fixed, but rather if was not fully repealed it would become, “the massive crown jewel of socialism that it was intended to be by President Obama”.

Alongside these concerns were calls to not provide any foreign aid to help Greece as it collapsed, general shade thrown towards other European countries for socialist-style policies as well as China, anti-Chavez stories, and criticism of the Stimulus Bill. Within these communications, one from then Representative Allen West (R-FL) stands out as prescient ,

At the time, this felt true to me. I was halfway into a politics PhD at NYU, and being a recent transplant from Kansas I found myself explaining to my new bi-coastal friends that, “liberal” would have been an insult in my home state, “progressive” wouldn’t have been uttered in polite company because it would been like accusing someone of being a communist. West was both right at the time, and onto something coming in the near future. In the Obama administration years the term “socialism” was bandied about in response to big legislative acts, to foreign governments, and on occasion to mock someone like Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders. But mostly, members of Congress shied away from using the term in official constituent communications. With the Trump administration ascendancy and the midterm election of 2018, things changed.

While there were a set of very conservative republicans who would talk about socialism as a flawed idea, or label some US policies as putting us on the path to socialism, it wasn’t until the most recent two years that “socialist” as a personal or collective insult really gained traction. Right after the Democrats took back the House in the 2018 midterms.

This surge in term use in 2019 started after President Trump’s second State of the Union Address where he declared, “the United States will never be a socialist country”. Then calls for anti-socialism in constituent e-newsletters soared after the announcement of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal was derided by Rep. David B. McKinley (R-WV) as “a clear call for a socialist expansion of government to address climate change.”. It was denounced by Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) ass, “socialism in its purest and most dangerous form” and similarly described by others.

Congressman Markwayne Mullin in March 2019

From the SOTU, to the Green New Deal, the next blanket target for a socialism charge was the overall “Democrats’ far left socialist agenda”. Then term term became personal when Representative Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) wrote, “freshman U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) goes far beyond caring about the environment and instead seeks to reinvent America as a socialist society.” Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) widened the net proclaiming the “GOP will continue to call out AOC’s squad to remind 2020 voters of the dangers of socialism”. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL) went so far as to call Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) the “Socialist Squad”. Once the presidential primaries were underway, Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) included Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the personal target list.

The continued use of socialism to describe Democratic priorities in the House was used to counter the voter and election reform bill known as H.R. 1 or the For the People Act. “H.R. 1 is just another cog in the Democrats’ socialist agenda”, wrote Congressman Steven Palazzo (R-MS). Medicare for All was next, as well as lots of comparisons to Venezuela, efforts towards increasing the $7.25 federal minimum wage, and attempts to lower prescription drug prices (H.R. 3).

COVID-19 might have slowed, but didn’t change the game. GOP legislators still accused Speaker Pelosi of holding up compromise relief bills so that she might get more things off her so-called “socialist wish list”. The House ultimately did vote for H.R. 6800, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, but the Senate has yet to move.

The use volume has changed markedly in the most recent years. Nearly all of this is attributed to Republican members trying to pin this label Democrats. Democrats for their part do not defend socialism, say they are attempting to adopt socialist reforms, or even really use the word. Notable exceptions include Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) who wrote “I told my Republican colleagues in a hearing this week that a single payer system wouldn’t be any more socialism than any of those other government-run programs, like Social Security and Medicare, that people seem to like.” Out of all official e-newsletters mentioning socialism, 94% come from Republicans.

So yes, socialism as a charge in official communications is up. Way up. These are not just campaign efforts or media appearance phrases, but rather in tax-payer funded communications intended to be informative and not-explicitly political. This trend came on during the first time Democrats took back a chamber since I started DCinbox. The personal targets have largely been women and leaders within the Democratic Party.

A Gallup poll released in 2019 found that 39% of Americans view socialism positively, with 49% of Americans aged 18 to 39 viewing it positively. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) wrote that the “2020 Democrats are ‘the socialists or the more socialists’”. We’ll get to see in just a few short weeks if voters have been scared and convinced that Democratic Party priorities are counter to their wishes, or if this label does not pack the punch Republicans hoped it would and voters decide they are ready for a Democratic change in governing.

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Lindsey Cormack

Lindsey Cormack

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I am an associate professor of political science and run www.dcinbox.com. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology and reside on the Upper East Side