So, this happened.
— NRCC (@NRCC) March 1, 2019
This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last, that the Republican Party tried to associate its opponents with socialism — the belief that the government should take control of the means of production. President Donald Trump used his recent State of the Union address to claim that “here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country.” Vice President Mike Pence told the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend that “America will never be a socialist country.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an opinion piece that could win Pulitzer Prize for its outstanding contribution to the field of false choices, writes that America “needs strong borders — not socialism.”
To be fair, the lines between “socialism” and other forms of government are often blurred. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, sometimes describes himself as a “socialist,” despite the fact that he does not advocate public ownership of the entire productive sector.
Nevertheless, the GOP has a long history of making facile comparisons between ordinary Democratic policy proposals and “socialism” — a history that predates Sanders by generations. Indeed, the socialism smear even predates our modern-day political coalitions, with the Republican Party commonly understood as the economically conservative party and the Democrats as economic moderates and liberals.
The socialism smear shaped the modern GOP. The idea built its coalition, defined many of its objections to the Democratic alternative, and helped form the partisan divide that is so familiar today. The socialism smear targeted the New Deal. It was Ronald Reagan’s weapon against Medicare, Newt Gingrich’s weapon against “Hillarycare,” and the entire GOP’s weapon against Obamacare.
And no matter what policies the next Democratic presidential nominee supports in 2020, that nominee will be labeled a “socialist.”
The American Liberty League
America’s political coalitions looked very different on the eve of the Great Depression than they do today. The Democratic Party would go on to produce President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it also incubated men like Justice James Clark McReynolds, a notorious bigot who consistently ruled against the New Deal. The Republican Party gave us President Theodore Roosevelt, with his trust-busting, pure food regulation, and conservationism. But it also gave us President Calvin Coolidge, who once claimed that “collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.”
Indeed, for much of his presidency, FDR’s most strident foes were not Republicans but conservative Democrats. While feeling abandoned by the party of the New Deal, they had not yet formed a new identity as Republicans. These men, who included two former Democratic presidential candidates and some of the wealthiest businessmen in the nation, formed an organization called the American Liberty League. At its peak, the group even rivaled the Republican Party itself as the locus of American conservatism.
Though the League failed in its primary goal of denying FDR a second term, it formed a bridge that led many of the nation’s most fortunate sons away from the Democratic Party — all the while denouncing the Democratic president’s agenda as socialism.
The League’s origin story reads like a liberal fever dream about the early days of the Tea Party. “Five negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this spring,” a former DuPont executive named Ruly Carpenter wrote a former colleague in 1934, “and a cook on my houseboat in Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter.” The recipient of this letter, a current DuPont executive and former chairman of the Democratic Party named John Raskob, wrote back to suggest a course of action.
“You haven’t much to do,” Raskob wrote to his retired friend, “and I know of no one that could better take the lead in trying to induce the DuPont and General Motors groups, followed by other big industries, to definitely organize to protect society from the sufferings it is bound to endure if we allow communistic elements to lead the people to believe that all businessmen are crooks.”
Raskob was correct about his friend’s abilities, for Carpenter wasn’t just a former DuPont executive. He was a member of the du Pont family by marriage and the brother-in-law of two of the wealthiest men in the nation, Pierre and Irénée du Pont. At Carpenter’s urging, the two chemical barons convened a group of their fellow captains of industry to form a “property holder’s association” to work to defeat the New Deal. The American Liberty League was born.
Much of the League’s membership drew from the “Stop Roosevelt” movement that unsuccessfully tried to convince the Democrats to renominate former New York Governor Al Smith as their 1932 presidential nominee. Smith, who received the Democratic nomination in 1928, became one of the League’s most outspoken figures — and he enthusiastically compared Roosevelt’s agenda to socialism, or worse.
“There can be only one Capital — Washington or Moscow,” Smith proclaimed in League-sponsored speech denouncing the New Deal. “There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes, or the red flag of the godless union of the Soviet. There can be only one national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale.”
Smith’s embrace of the socialism smear is ironic because, just a few years earlier, future President Herbert Hoover campaigned against Smith by accusing the then-New York governor of “State Socialism.” Hoover accused Smith of abandoning “the tenets of his own party” and urged his defeat in order to prevent him from implementing “paternalistic and socialistic doctrines.”
Much of the League’s rhetoric followed a narrow interpretation of the Constitution — an interpretation that conservative justices used for several decades to strike down progressive legislation ranging from the minimum wage to child labor laws — and it held this limited understanding of the Constitution up as a shield against Roosevelt’s supposed socialism. Laws such as the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers’ rights to organize into unions, “all fit into a scheme under which economic planning is carried out,” according to a pamphlet distributed by the League. “Only the Constitution stands in the way of complete government control of industry and agriculture, of workers and farmers.”
Of course, the League failed to defeat Roosevelt or the New Deal, and the government never seized control of industry and agriculture. But the League’s hyperbolic script, with its frequent allegations that its enemies were socialists or communists, became a mainstay of conservative rhetoric. And it eventually became a mainstay of Republican rhetoric as economic conservatives sorted into the GOP.
Operation Coffee Cup
By the mid-twentieth century, the socialism smear stood at the heart of conservative rhetoric denouncing progressive health programs. As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse noted, for example, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Oveta Culp Hobby, denounced a Democratic plan to provide free polio vaccines to children as a “back door” leading to socialized medicine.
Similarly, when President Harry Truman proposed a national health-insurance program in 1945, the American Medical Association (AMA) condemned it as “socialized medicine” and labeled Truman’s White House staffers “followers of the Moscow party line.” Health providers distributed 55 million pamphlets featuring a fabricated quote attributed to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin: “Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the Socialist State.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the AMA recruited an actor who would go on to symbolize the Republican Party’s embrace of economic conservatism — Ronald Reagan — as their spokesperson for a campaign called “Operation Coffee Cup.” Launched to fight Medicare, Operation Coffee Cup asked doctors’ wives to invite their friends over to drink coffee and listen to a recording called “Ronald Reagan speaks out against SOCIALIZED MEDICINE.”
Reagan began his case against Medicare with an ominous warning. “Now, back in 1927 an American socialist, Norman Thomas, six times candidate for President on the Socialist Party ticket, said the American people would never vote for socialism,” Reagan claimed, “But, he said under the name of liberalism the American people will adopt every fragment of the socialist program.”
The view Reagan attributed to Thomas is almost certainly a fiction. According to the myth-debunking website Snopes, “no one has ever been able to turn up a source documenting that [Thomas] actually said or wrote” the words Reagan attributed to him. Nevertheless, in the Operation Coffee Cup recording, Reagan insists that Medicare will inevitably lead to a government takeover of every aspect of our lives.
The doctor begins to lose freedoms. . . . First you decide that the doctor can have so many patients. They’re equally divided among the various doctors by the government. But then the doctors aren’t equally divided geographically, so a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him, “You can’t live in that town. They already have enough doctors.” You have to go someplace else. And from here it’s only a short step to dictating where he will go. . . .
All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, 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 they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.
If his listeners do not stop Medicare, Reagan concluded, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Reagan’s case against Medicare is still one of the most hyperbolic examples of the socialism smear, but the general theme that progressive health policy is a form of socialism currently dominates Republican rhetoric.
Future Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) attacked President Bill Clinton’s health care plan as “socialism now or later” and claimed it was a plan to seize “control of the health care system and centralize power in Washington.” Claims that the Affordable Care Act is a “government takeover” of medicine were a mainstay of Republican opposition to the law. In an October op-ed criticizing Democratic proposals to expand Medicare to all Americans, President Trump echoed the hyperbolic rhetoric of Operation Coffee Cup.
Democrats, Trump claimed, “are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.”
If Democrats win control of Congress this November, we will come dangerously closer to socialism in America. Government-run health care is just the beginning. Democrats are also pushing massive government control of education, private-sector businesses and other major sectors of the U.S. economy.
Even the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the health program for children that Clinton signed into law with the enthusiastic support of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), has, at times, been a victim of the socialism smear. In a 2007 column, the Heritage Foundation’s Michael Franc labeled SCHIP “a step towards socialism.”
Just ignore it
Speaking at a celebration of Ayn Rand in 2005, future House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) offered one of the most ambitious versions of the socialist smear. “Social Security right now is a collectivist system,” Ryan declared, before laying out a broad range of programs he hoped to privatize.
“If we do not succeed in switching these programs, in reforming these programs from what some people call a defined benefit system, to a defined contribution system,” Ryan claimed, adding that “this is where I’m talking about health care, as well” — if America doesn’t switch these programs from a “socialist based system to an individually owned, individually prefunded, individually directed system,” then the consequence would be “more collectivism, more centralized government.”
Ryan, at the time, represented the radical right fringe of the Republican Party. His views were so beyond the pale then that even the Bush White House rejected his plan to privatize Social Security.
But the socialism smear is hardly a creature of the GOP’s fringes. Indeed, it’s long been the purview of the party’s top leaders.
In 1960, future Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater wrote then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, urging him to not join John F. Kennedy’s “socialist” presidential ticket. “I still have a numb feeling of despair over your actions of yesterday in accepting the candidacy for Vice President.” Goldwater wrote. “It is difficult to imagine a person like you running in a second spot to a weaker man, but it is even more incredible to try to understand how you are going to try to embrace the socialist platform of your party.”
In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush deployed the smear against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, claiming that Dukakis broke “with the American tradition of entrepreneurship and free enterprise” at the very moment when other world governments “are abandoning socialism.”
In 2008, the sainted John McCain attacked future President Barack Obama’s tax proposals as “socialism,” stating in a radio address that Obama “believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it.” According to McCain, Obama wasn’t just a socialist, he was also a liar. “At least in Europe,” said McCain, “the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives.”
There are, in other words, some things in life that are constant. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. People are born, pay taxes, and die. Love blossoms and love fades. Oceans rise. Empires fall. And Republicans will label Democrats “socialists” throughout it all.
The only question is whether today’s Democrats will accept the socialism smear as part of the background noise that surrounds American politics, or whether they will allow themselves to be spooked away from good policies by this never-ending din.