On socialism, populism and the Left.

A lot of people are wondering why Republicans persist in pretending that Obama is about to foist “socialism” on the American people. The answer is obvious: because it’s a safe, nonthreatening way to act like a populist. Everyone in Washington knows Republicans hate “socialism,” and everyone in Washington knows that it won’t actually affect the way most Republicans vote. But they’re playing with fire: Some Americans have come to hate their government so much they’re beginning to snort and paw the ground like it’s 1968:

I just want to offer you and the tea party protesters some words of encouragement. As someone who has studied (and blogged) protest as an act of democratic revolution and people power in the post-Soviet area, I know a lot about the dynamics of mass civil society unrest, government transition, etc…

What we are seeing now is truly huge POTENTIAL for massive civil unrest against the American government gone lunatic with spending. Realistically, 400-1000 people at a protest, even at a dozen protests across the country, will do nothing to change the minds of our idiot leaders.

However, it creates the POTENTIAL that each protest could have a million. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine did not start out with two million people camping in tents in downtown Kiev. It started with only a few hundred diehard activists.

We’re used to thinking of “massive civil unrest” as a tool of the Left, which is why hearing right-wingers talk about it approvingly seems so odd. Certainly “massive civil unrest” seems like an odd thing for any professed conservative to defend. But the contemporary Right understands populism much better than the American Left ever has, which explains why, despite decades of concerted efforts by leftists, the Left has not had a single successful populist of note in more than sixty years. (The last one was Huey Long, weirdly misportrayed ever since as a right-wing reactionary.)

Part of the reason is that leftists are bound to deplore The Way Things Are. The spectrum they chart goes all the way from minor revolution (“We should abolish capital punishment”) to major (“We should abolish the family”). The course of the Left, since the ’60s, has been toward a growing alienation from the way most people in America think and act, the way they live their daily lives — perceptible not merely in leftists’ embrace of identity politics, which rejects politics altogether in favor of postmodern gobbledygook and Orwellian groupthink, but in their Marxist assumption that only economics matters. The citizen is not a citizen but a “worker,” and all issues are organized labor issues. (The Right’s version of this is to call citizens “consumers” and pretend that all issues are market transactions.) As ill-fitting as these two attitudes are — it seems impossible to believe in both of them — they were what leftists were preaching for decades, and the message failed to appeal to ordinary people for the simple reason that it was never intended for ordinary people.

Right-wing populist demagogues, on the other hand, set themselves up as defenders of The Way Things Are, beset by big government and big business. (Since outright decrying the excesses of big business would leave themselves open to charges of socialism, right-wing populists generally code this message in denunciations of “liberal” Hollywood, as excessive and grotesque a manifestation of free-market capitalism as the world has ever known.) Taken out of its demagogue’s husk, where it nestles side by side with bigotry, xenophobia and homophobia, it’s a very appealing message because it contains a good deal of truth. So appealing is it, in fact, that it’s led many liberals — Richard Hofstadter was the first, with his warning against “the paranoid style” in American politics — to distrust and fear populism altogether.

So why is “socialism,” of all things, such an effective message, particularly considering that most of America’s cherished allies (Britain, Israel) fit the description if any country ever has? It could be residual distrust of anything remotely associated with Soviet communism, but that seems a dimmer memory every year. As Chevy Chase put it in Caddyshack: “This isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia.”

The reason the socialism charge is so effective, I think, is that it’s basically true. Our government showers the powerful few with favors and special privileges because they are powerful, and should remain powerful. (That was the message behind the ’08 Wall Street bailout: We may not like them, but we can’t live without them. What our leaders didn’t tell us was that “we” meant them and not us.) To paraphrase Gore Vidal, we have effective socialism for the rich and half-hearted socialism for the rest of us. The few privileges enjoyed by ordinary people — the right not to die in the gutter after retirement, for example — seem a paltry sum enough, considering we’re the wealthiest country in the world, but right-wingers still attack them because they dare not speak out against the genuine beneficiaries of American “welfare.” To do that would be to attack the status quo in a serious, no-kidding way — which is not the way to endear yourself to the party bosses. Yet “socialist” contains enough truth to make the charge sting.

One last point: What both liberals and conservatives have managed to do very well is to separate this issue from politics. Just look at that sign from Tulsa:

Why should YOU pay for MY healthcare?

Why indeed? A true republican would answer: Because it is entirely in the interest of the powerful that you remain dependent on the whims of the marketplace — or the unlikely kindness of your employers — not merely for success, but for your very existence. Thus, ensuring health care is essential to ensure the well-being and independence of the citizenry. Naturally, this pragmatic answer, entirely in keeping with the principles of the republic, never arises in our discourse. Instead it’s been reduced to a debate over “liberty,” as if liberals who defend hate-crime laws or right-wingers who defend the right of a Republican President to do whatever he wants have any interest in liberty whatsoever.

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3 Responses to “On socialism, populism and the Left.”

  1. Evan Says:

    In lieu of thoughtful commentary, a quote:

    “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.”
    -Thomas Jefferson = not-real-republican?

  2. Evan Says:

    Actually, quick check reveals that the aforementioned quote is entirely fabricated. Still, I think that the point holds. How long can we continue to expand and expand and expand the role of the state before it becomes tyrannical? This is kind of the political-theoretical version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. . .” — if you give a mouse democracy, next thing you know you’ll owe him $25,678 in back taxes.

  3. Justyn Dillingham Says:

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume the faux Jefferson quote (which T.J. probably would’ve agreed with, more or less) is real.

    In this context, I think faux Jefferson is using “government” to mean the literal people in power, not the abstract concept of government. Note that he approves of the Constitution (which certainly falls under the category of “government”) as a means of restraining those in power. In short, faux Jefferson (like the real Jefferson) has no quarrel with “government” as a concept, only with those who would misuse it.

    As for your question, it’s a good one, and it merits a full-length response (forthcoming soon).

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