Calling Obama a socialist is part of a longstanding GOP tradition

Since Barack Obama first began trying to become the President of the United States, there have been those who called him a socialist. During the last GOP Presidential debate, we saw this label become the dominant theme of the GOP, which used to be labeled the “loyal opposition.” Claims of President Obama being a socialist seem to have little connection to reality and may end up having consequences that the GOP does not intend.

Accusations of President Obama being a socialist have been around from almost as soon as he first declared his interest in the Presidency. While he was not the first Democratic candidate to be labeled socialist, there was a difference. in that conservatives have a long history of labeling black leaders as “socialist” or “communist.” Jerry Falwell accused Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. of being a communist and felt he was a tool of the communist attempt to dominate the world. This notion is tied to much of the rhetoric we heard from Tea Party types who wanted “our country back.” The association comes from seeing any threat as coming from an alien source – and there is nothing more alien to Americans than socialism and communism. This combines with the difference in race to making the mental connection that black leaders who oppose the status quo are not good Americans, ergo they are socialists and communists.

The use of the words socialist and communist to denote a threat and to act as insults is a relatively new phenomenon in the US.  In the early 20th century, major cities that had socialist mayors,  and many labor movements were propelled forward by the work of organizers who were also communists. Many know the story of Helen Keller learning the word “water,” but few are aware that she became one of the few women of her generation to get a college degree and spent much of her adulthood writing and working for socialist causes.

Many would be surprised to learn that the Republican Party itself was influenced by socialists at the time of its founding. Horace Greely employed Karl Marx as a foreign correspondent, and Abraham Lincoln employed Marx’s editor as a presidential assistant. Other Presidents who borrowed from the ideas of socialism include (but are not limited to) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Socialism has a long and proud history in America, although there have been attempts to demonize it by those who fear losing power. Then there were those who used communism and socialism simply as a means to get elected and exercise power. I am not speaking of the socialists and communists themselves, but the Joe McCarthy’s who have used fear as a lever to access more power.

The use of the word “socialist” by conservatives is in the grand tradition of Joe McCarthy, but may end up having an unintended consequence. Many of America’s young people know very little about either socialism or communism, other than what they learn from the media. As they see that capitalism is running off of the rails, with job prospects for graduates still languishing, they hear that those proposing change and job programs are socialists. The conclusion is obvious, if capitalism is broken, and it takes socialism to get things moving – then by all means lets all become socialists!

Those old enough remember  may recall a skit by comedian Lenny Bruce, in which he proposed that a hateful word being used to disparage minorities begin to be used by everyone towards absolutely everyone. Before long, the word would lose all of its power to do harm to anyone. The GOP may very well be going down the path to making this strategy a reality. It has indeed been a while since we have seen so much discussion about socialism, and I can’t help but wonder whether more people are reading Das Kapital today than four years ago.