Steve August 17, 2020

One of the strengths of the Republican Party is its message
discipline. When it finds an issue that works, it beats that issue to death, flogging
it long after it stops working. Thus after the Civil War, the party waved the “
bloody shirt” by attacking
Democrats for opposing the war, which created a continuous run of Republican
presidents between 1868 and 1912, punctuated only by a single Democrat, Grover

Another bloody shirt that Republicans have waved
and plan to wave again this election cycle is “socialism.” I put
the term in quotation marks because to hear Republicans tell it, virtually
everything government does is socialism
; it is utterly foreign to the
United States, and it cannot be implemented without imposing tyranny on the
American people, along with poverty and deprivation such as we see today in
Venezuela, where socialism
allegedly destroyed the country

On July 17, Vice President Mike Pence gave a preview of the
coming socialism-addled Republican strategy rather than the actual policies of
Joe Biden. Said
(emphasis added):

Before us are two paths: one based on the dignity of every
individual, and the other on the growing control of the state.  Our road
leads to greater freedom and opportunity.  Their road leads to socialism
and decline

Tweety McTreason set our nation on a path to freedom and
opportunity from the very first day of this administration. But Joe Biden would
set America on a path of socialism and decline….

The Biden-Sanders agenda would set America on the path of socialism
and decline

My fellow Americans, that’s the choice we face.  We have
two paths before us: one of freedom and opportunity, the other of socialism
and decline

So that’s the choice we face, my fellow Americans: between
freedom and opportunity or socialism and decline.

The plan to run against some mythical threat of socialism
has been underway for some time. As early as October 2018, the White House Council of
Economic Advisers issued
a report
attacking it, with a follow-up chapter in the 2019 Economic
Report of the President
. More recently, well-known right-wing crackpot Dinesh
published a screed on the subject, the gist of
is that all liberals, progressives, and Democrats are socialists, as
were the Nazis. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, has also published The
Case Against Socialism
, which one
said “does not make a case against socialism, but it does make a
convincing case against nepotism.” (Senator Paul is the son of former
Congressman Ron Paul
of Texas, for whom I worked in the 1970s.)

The essence of the Republican attack is to lie about the
nature of socialism, grossly exaggerating its negative excesses while
completely ignoring its positive effects. When they are forced to concede that some
socialistic government programs–such as disease prevention or temporarily
higher unemployment benefits–may be valuable, they will nevertheless insist
that it must be resisted because it’s the first step on the slippery slope to
totalitarianism. As Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican who represents the
Confederate state of Arkansas, put it in a tweet: “Socialism
may begin with the best of intentions, but it always ends with the Gestapo.”

Republicans assert, endlessly, that the Austrian economist F.A.
proved that the welfare state leads inevitably to socialism and
tyranny in his 1944 book, The
Road to Serfdom
. While Hayek’s theory may have been plausible in the
midst of World War II, all the evidence since then thoroughly contradicts it. There
is no evidence whatsoever that welfare states morph into total state control of
the economy and produce a concomitant loss of freedom and prosperity. There is
not a single case of this happening anywhere. Nor is there anything in Hayek’s
theory to explain why socialism collapsed in the Soviet Union or why
privatization rolled it back in places like Britain. (Ironically, Hayek’s relatively
expansive view of government’s legitimate functions make him a virtual
socialist to
some of today’s right-wingers

One myth that permeates the right-wing attack on socialism
is that America was founded as a sort of libertarian paradise based on the free market ideas of Adam Smith.
However, this perspective is very much at odds with the actual views of Smith
and the Founding Fathers.

For example, in 1763, Smith observed that the cheapest, most
miserly government with the lowest taxes and spending was not by any means the
best; on the contrary, Smith argued that it was usually a sign of barbarism. Expensive
states, he believed, were civilized, more advanced than those with puny
governments unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from the ravages of
hunger, disease, and poverty. (This
is still true
.) Said

We may observe that the government in a civilized country is
much more expensive than in a barbarous one; and when we say that one
government is more expensive than another, it is the same as if we
said that the one country is farther advanced in improvement than another. To
say that the government is expensive and the people not oppressed is
to say that the people are rich. There are many expenses necessary in a
civilized country for which there is no occasion in one that is barbarous.
Armies, fleets, fortified places, and public buildings, judges, and officers of
the revenue must be supported, and if they be neglected, disorder will ensue.

Like Smith, the Founding Fathers understood that government
has functions that go far beyond the night watchman state favored by those on
the right today. Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense
underpinned the ideology of the American Revolution, was
a virtual socialist
. His most radical work, Agrarian Justice, proposed
the revolutionary idea of a wealth tax to fund payments to citizens reaching
maturity, a precursor to today’s idea of a basic

James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, agreed
that providing income to the indigent was a core government function. He wrote
in an 1820 letter:

To provide employment for the poor and support for the
indigent is among the primary, & at the same time not least difficult cares
of the public authority. In very populous Countries the task is particularly
arduous. In our favored Country where employment & food are much less
subject to failures or deficiencies the interposition of the public
guardianship is required in a far more limited degree. Some degree of
interposition nevertheless, is at all times and everywhere called for.

Of course, Alexander Hamilton was definitely a big
government kind of guy
, advocating direct government aid to industry,
extensive public works, and a strong central government, which is the subject
of a new book, Radical
, by The City University of New York economist Christian Parenti. Hamilton’s Report
on Manufactures
(1791) is a virtual blueprint for extensive government
control of the economy for which he is routinely
by today’s

A number of books detail the many ways that the early
republic harnessed the power of government to grow the economy. These include The Governmental
Habit Redux
by the economic historian Jonathan R.T. Hughes, The
Great Challenge
by the political scientist Frank Bourgin, and, just
published, The
Lost Tradition of Economic Equality
by the historian Daniel R. Mandell.
Even the sainted Thomas Jefferson, the most libertarian of the Founding
Fathers, expanded government far beyond its constitutional limits when he made
the Louisiana Purchase.

Since they’re unable to run against the actual expansion of
the American welfare state, GOP propagandists retreat into fantasy. Always
missing from the Republican critique is any clear definition of socialism. This
is intentional. Republicans know that the term “socialism” is unpopular with
many Americansalthough a growing
percentage embrace it
. Republicans also know that numerous programs they
view as socialistic are nevertheless
popular with voters
. President Harry Truman often made this point in his
said in 1952

Socialism is a scare word [Republicans] have hurled at every
advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they
called public power. Socialism is what they called social security. Socialism
is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank
deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and
independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything
that helps all the people.

Conversely, Republicans never call their many tax giveaways
to favored industrialists like Elon
“socialism.” In her brilliant book, The
Entrepreneurial State
, the economist Mariana Mazzucato demonstrated
that the entire tech sector rests on a foundation of government-funded research
and development that is almost never acknowledged.

In truth, Republicans aren’t opposed to socialism per se but only socialism that benefits
poor people and minorities
. Socialism
for farmers and industrialists
is just fine as far as they are concerned.

According to the dictionary, socialism means that the government owns
all the means of production, and Republicans are right that this system doesn’t
work very well. But absolutely no
one is advocating that
. Today’s advocates of “socialism” merely want a
somewhat expanded welfare state or even just a government that actually works.
Republicans are running against a strawman, though history tells us that has
never stopped them before.

There Is A Specter Haunting America

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