At this point, the GOP is less about standing for something and more about labeling Democrats as socialists — and sometimes even communists. Just look at its use of this line of attack in the all-important Senate runoffs in Georgia, scheduled for Jan. 5, which will decide control of the Senate.
It is incumbent on Democrats first and foremost to define what socialism means.
During President Donald Trump’s rally Nov. 5 in Georgia, where — in between peddling lies about election fraud and bizarrely declaring “I like cucumbers” (I’m serious) — he returned to the script loaded into the teleprompter to deliver the line, “If you don’t vote, the socialists and the communists win.”
He repeated a similar message several times, at one point advising the crowd that in the Senate elections, “you will decide whether your children will grow up in a socialist country or whether they will grow up in a free country.”
Then there was Sunday’s debate in Georgia between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock. If you were playing a drinking game in which you had to down a shot of whiskey every time Loeffler used the word “socialism,” you would have passed out after 20 minutes or so, depending on your alcohol tolerance.
Loeffler used the socialism charge against Warnock eight times in the debate, calling him a “radical liberal … socialist” and positioning herself as the guardian against going “down the road of socialism.” Even her closing argument stated bluntly, “There are two visions for our country — mine: the American dream; my opponent’s: socialism.”
Progressives, including me, have spent years rolling our eyes at this baseless claim. Because whatever is happening in the Democratic Party, it ain’t socialism.
A 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 18 percent of Americans held favorable views of socialism.
But whether or not they think it’s beneath them to dignify accusations of socialism with a response, it is incumbent on Democrats first and foremost to define what socialism means so people understand that no one in the Democratic Party is advocating actual socialism.
Here’s a wonky dictionary definition of the word: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
I can sense people’s eyes glazing over already, but in more practical terms, “socialism” means the government would fully control the economy, including all modes of production, from telling factories how much to produce to telling farmers how many cows they could own. (In contrast, communism envisions no ownership of private property.)
It makes sense that most Democrats don’t feel the need to address the outrageous allegation that they want the government to take control of our entire lives. And it probably explains why, during Sunday’s debate, Warnock didn’t directly renounce “socialism” when Loeffler asked him to. But at this point, the strategy is a big, fat failure. The GOP has been extremely effective in weaponizing the label “socialist” as a political strategy.
Don’t take my word for it. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. — who was recently elected co-chair of the House Democrats’ messaging arm — appeared on my SiriusXM radio show this week and said, “We looked at polling, and it is, in fact, true that the socialist attack does bring down a candidate,” adding, “That’s objectively what these polls show.” It’s not surprising, given that a 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 18 percent of Americans held favorable views of socialism.
This also helps explain what we saw in the 2020 election. While President-elect Joe Biden soundly defeated Trump, House Republicans picked up at least 10 seats — the overall GOP strategy focused on painting Democrats as “socialists” and “radical leftists.” It makes a lot of sense, then, that the GOP is doubling and tripling down on Democrats as socialists in the Georgia Senate races.
If you were playing a drinking game in which you had to down a shot of whiskey every time Loeffler used the word “socialism,” you would have passed out after about 20 minutes.
As Lieu highlighted, Democrats must not allow these socialism allegations to go unanswered. As he said, polling has shown that an effective strategy is to simply state, “I’m a capitalist.”
Democrats must go further to explain what more needs to be done to make our economic system fairer, of course. During the campaign, Biden offered a road map for how to push back against the socialism charge with a very simple response: “Do I look like a socialist?!” He added: “Look at my career — my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
This is a step, but clearly not strong enough of a stance. With the socialism attack line apparently not working against Biden, Trump pivoted to calling Biden “a Trojan horse for socialism.”
Now, when Lieu, I or others suggest pushing back against the socialist label, we don’t mean giving up our principles as progressives. Look at how Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the most progressive members of the Democratic Party, addressed the issue in the lead-up to her run for president. “I am a capitalist,” she clearly stated. But, she added, our system needs to be fairer, because without that, then the “rich take it all.”
Not even Sen. Bernie Sanders, who advocates for “democratic socialism,” is embracing the true meaning of socialism. Rather, he champions expanding President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal so that the government plays a bigger role in providing health care, education and other basic social services.
It may be also be effective for Democratic candidates to explain that popular programs like Medicare and Social Security are, in fact, based on socialist principles. The same goes for public schools, community colleges and mass transit systems, in that the government is using our collective tax dollars to operate these programs.
But perhaps the best approach is to make it clear that to the GOP that “socialism” is anything that doesn’t help its wealthy donors. The GOP has a long record of opposing programs that are lifelines for working- and lower-class Americans by using the socialist label. For example, in 1961, Ronald Reagan railed against the idea of Medicare as “socialism.” Republican leaders also slammed the Affordable Care Act as “socialism” when President Barack Obama proposed it in 2009. Of course, the GOP is fine with “corporate socialism” that helps its donors — from corporate bailouts to subsidies for certain industries funded by our tax dollars.
Democratic candidates should use the approach that resonates with them and their platforms when fighting the socialism trope. But one thing is clear: Democratic candidates must start pushing back — loudly, vocally — against the GOP’s strategy of weaponizing an adulterated definition of socialism and labeling them as socialists. Because declining to address these baseless charges head-on will undoubtedly lead to only more Democratic defeats.