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The Red Scare and Average Joes 

What we talk about when we talk about socialism

Thursday, Oct 30 2008
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With precious little to distinguish himself from the Bush years, except possibly more intransigence than even W. when it comes to moving off failed domestic and foreign policies, John McCain is losing the battle of reason in this election — which says that the Bush era has been a disaster and more of the same would be an even bigger disaster. And so he has staked his hopes for the presidency on the pull of visceral emotionalism. For weeks, McCain and Sarah Palin have spent considerable energy insinuating that Barack Obama is a dark (literally and figuratively), unseemly character who just might be a one-man sleeper cell. A recent example of these tactics is the Republican National Committee mailer blowing around Virginia last week with a jumbo jet on its cover and ransom-note-style typography exclaiming Terrorists Don’t Care Who They Hurt, followed, of course, by a photo of Obama and the declaration: “Barack Obama. Not Who You Think He Is.” Pressed by a Missouri TV reporter, McCain said he’s “absolutely” proud of the mailer, which for me is further evidence that he’s not who I thought he was when I was kind of rooting for him back in 2000.

With Obama’s poll numbers and projected electoral-college vote increasing in something like direct proportion to McCain’s appeals to “real America’s” latent racism and the fear trigger they hope is Barry’s middle name, McCain and Palin have lately been trying to seduce another part of our lizard brain, the one that recoils at the mere whisper of — dare I say it? — socialism.

Assuming you read that word and didn’t immediately start shitting Little Red Books, there’s something worth examining in the McCain campaign’s desire to boil the archetypal Joe the Plumber and the prosecutorial Joe McCarthy up into a strange brew they hope will get an anxious electorate drunk enough to put the Arizona senator in the White House, where he can presumably finish the business of ruining the country. Leaving aside the McCain strategists’ desperate desires to add the red hue of socialism to the apocalyptic vision they’re trying to paint in our subconscious should Obama win, what’s worth looking at is the idea of socialism itself. What does it mean these days when the most strident socialist state left in the world, North Korea, is a tragic oddity, and the largest one, China, is our biggest benefactor. Neither is capable of raising the old red scare of the Soviet bear. So what are we talking about when we talk about socialism, since lately we’re talking about it so much?

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McCain and Palin can’t get through a stump speech without extolling Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher as a stand-in for the average Joe, whose entrepreneurial dreams will be dashed under Obama’s tax plan. As an archetype, Joe doesn’t hold up so well. He isn’t a licensed plumber, isn’t about to buy the company he works for — or anyone else’s – and owes more than a grand in back taxes. (No wonder he doesn’t like them.) Under Obama’s plan, of course, he would actually receive a tax cut since he doesn’t make anywhere near $250,000, the income level that would see a modest rollback to Clinton-era tax rates. When Joe said the plan “sounds like socialism to me,” conservative dogs on TV, radio and the blogosphere went off. The phrase they’ve been sinking their teeth into like a pork chop has been Obama’s reply to Joe, that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everyone.

I asked John Despres, an economist who started in the Bureau of the Budget back when color TV was spreading as fast as the Domino Theory, and who worked in the Carter, Reagan and Clinton administrations, what is going on here.

“McCain is saying that the transfer of wealth or income through the tax code is class warfare and socialism,” Despres explains. “It’s being used as an epithet to conjure up fears that we’re on a slippery slope, and that this is a hidden agenda Obama has to take away people’s economic freedom and manage their lives like a socialist state.”

And there you have it, the red scare in an easy sound bite. Obama wants to redistribute the wealth. Massively, according to the more frothing conservatives. And wealth redistribution is nothing more than socialism. And socialism is bad, right? Especially the fashion sense. Better dead than dressed like Kim Jong-il, I always say.

Of course, a progressive tax code is a far cry from a socialist state and has been a fundamental premise of free-market capitalist thinking, well, forever. To quote one such thinker: “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue but something more than in that proportion.” That was Adam Smith, from The Wealth of Nations.

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