Even Republicans’ earliest allegations of secret socialism were grounded in an unholy network of lies and collaboration with media outlets. In 1928, New York Governor and Democrat Al Smith ran for president against the Republican Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Thanks in part to name recognition and to a roaring economy under his tenure as commerce secretary, Hoover was always favored to win. It didn’t help Al Smith’s chances that he was the first Catholic presidential nominee and thus faced widespread prejudice among the crucial Protestant voting bloc.
If Smith’s campaign was dead in the water to begin with, it officially sank once the allegations of socialism began rolling in. As historian Robert Chiles details in his book The Revolution of ’28: Al Smith, American Progressivism, and the Coming of the New Deal, Hoover cunningly described Smith’s proposals around farm relief, national electrical power, and repealing Prohibition as a “turn to State socialism.” Neither farm relief nor electricity qualifies as socialism, and repealing Prohibition was an anti-government position. But the accusation stuck all the same, thanks in large part to a willing media. Chiles reports that the Los Angeles Times, for example, covered Smith’s defense as “Smith Defends His Socialism.” The election was a landslide for Hoover, and the pattern of Republican deployment of socialism to condemn whatever their opponents did was set.
The 1920s were boom years for American corporate interests. Nevertheless, says Larry Glickman, a history professor at Cornell University, a mentality of “elite victimization” set in among the monied interests in America. They saw socialism lurking around every corner. Then the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression and setting the stage for FDR’s election and the New Deal.
Critics immediately set about characterizing Roosevelt’s many governmental interventions as socialism. Given the indelible effect of the New Deal on U.S. government policy and programs, it might be easy to dismiss those critics as ineffective. Glickman argues otherwise. Americans, he says, learned to oppose “the state as an abstract thing, [even though] they liked a lot of state programs.” So, as “free enterprise” lost the policy battles, Glickman explains, conservative corporate rhetoric decrying state intervention as socialist seems to have persuaded a lot of Americans to be suspicious of the state. Ever since, it has become standard practice for Republicans to oppose popular programs on anti-socialist grounds. “[Allegations of socialism have] happened in every presidential election no matter how moderate the candidate,” Glickman says. “Dukakis tried to run even from liberalism but was called a socialist [and] un-American.”
Instead of debating what is and isn’t socialism, it’s long past time to debate the meaning of capitalism.
Over the decades, Republicans have expended the most energy predicting imminent descent into socialism. Some of the allegations have been especially preposterous. Historian Kevin Kruse points out that after Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, Democrats proposed distributing it for free to every child under 19. Over email, Kruse writes that Oveta Culp Hobby, a Texas millionaire and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of health, education, and welfare, fought back, calling free distribution “socialized medicine by the back door.” Decades later, right-wing personality Clarence Mannion denounced the National Defense and Interstate Highways Act of 1956 as a sign of “creeping socialism.” Mannion was ignored, and the interstate system was built. And still socialism did not creep in.
Perhaps most bizarre among all the fearmongering campaigns, in 1961, Ronald Reagan narrated a record called Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine, a set of screeds against Social Security (as an attack on private savings) and Medicare. Reagan predicted that the passage of Medicare would make it impossible for Americans to decide where to live or work, and that “from here, it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism, to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what he will do for a living.” Medicare passed, and the children of 1960s Americans still got to decide where to go and what they wanted to do for a living.
Republicans made similar dire warnings about the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama was a Midwestern centrist politician with a long history of collaboration with Republicans, but that didn’t stop Republicans from demonizing him as a socialist or characterizing Obamacare as socialized medicine. In 2007, Mitt Romney warned that if Democrats were in charge, they’d create “socialized medicine.” Republicans made similar warnings about Bill Clinton’s attempt to reform health care in the early 1990s and derailed that plan entirely. Of course, they failed to stop Obamacare from passing — but it wasn’t socialized medicine. The private insurance market did not collapse, but rather solidified its hold on the delivery of American health care.
Now, times have changed, and Democrats aren’t necessarily running from the socialist stamp. “We have Bernie claiming to be a socialist, and young people seeming to like that label,” Glickman says. “It takes the wind out of the sails of that criticism, like reappropriating other words.” And it’s not just Sanders. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez identifies as a socialist, and socialism has become a vibrant part of the fabric of Brooklyn, down to its dating scene. Glickman says that there’s a “degree to which that panic is pretty consistent across different political periods, [but] there’s more of a sense of uncertainty now, because it’s not implausible that a progressive Democrat running on the most progressive platform since the ’40s could win the presidency next time.”
So, what should Democrats do? One argument is just to accept the inevitable, as Joshua Holland recently wrote in the Nation, and embrace the label. Glickman, drawing on his perspective as a historian of commerce, suggests it’s more important that left-wing politicians make a serious effort to change the conversation. Instead of debating what is and isn’t socialism, it’s long past time to debate the meaning of capitalism. “There’s room on the Democratic side to talk about varieties of capitalism and regulated capitalism,” says Glickman, noting that Sanders, for all his touted socialism, never talks about American socialist legend Eugene Debs, but cites FDR constantly. Senator Elizabeth Warren, he notes, “does not call herself a socialist, but is promoting an antitrust welfare vision [of capitalism].”
Perhaps this presents the best path forward for Democrats — highlighting, through careful language and policy, the societal ills that their radical (though not inherently) socialist policies wish to address. Because, as Glickman explains, “when capitalism is unproblematized, it’s easier to draw the binary of capitalism and socialism.” If Democratic socialism includes roads, vaccines, health care, and electricity, then maybe Republican capitalism involves sick people who can’t afford health care, have nowhere to drive, and are just sitting in the dark.