Pushing Their Buttons: Then and Now

Socialism Buttons

Watching the Republicans marching carefully in the footprints of their fore-bearers makes for interesting television, and bad governance.   It doesn’t appear to matter to the Anti-New Dealers still among us that Social Security (and cuts thereto) is the Third Rail of American politics, and it’s instructive that the Tea Party Lady held up her sign reading: “Keep the Government Out of My Medicare.”    Their logic is simplicity itself: If it’s about the collective welfare of the United States and its citizens it’s Socialism.  If it’s Socialism then it must be Anti-American.

100% Americanism

Return with us now to the Red Scare — not the McCarthy Era, the first Red Scare.  The groundwork was laid by George Creel, President Wilson’s chairman of the United States Committee on Public Information, who was tasked with encouraging a reluctant nation into World War I.  [PBS] Americans were listening to the Four Minute Men in their movie theaters, some 7,555,190 speeches between April 1917 and November 1918.  They read some 6,000 press releases, and perhaps saw about 200,000 slide shows.  [SW] The Chambers of Commerce were recruited to help distribute the materials, as well as the Boy Scouts and various fraternal societies.  All the speeches, press releases, periodicals, and propagandizing had one point: Hate The Hun.

And then the war ended.  The Russian regime crumbled, and the Communists installed a new government. In the U.S. returning soldiers had trouble finding work, farmers who had been encouraged to plant fence to fence during the war found themselves with surplus crops and declining prices.   During this unstable period Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and other interested officers formed the American Legion at the “Paris Caucus.” Subsequent organization of the modern version of the Grand Army of the Republic, lead to the adoption of its promotion of 100% Americanism at its 1919 convention.  The events in Centralia, Washington, November 1919, helped change the conversation.

The Centralia American Legion organized a parade for Armistice Day 1919, while members of the IWW worried that their headquarters were going to be raided, as had been the case with other IWW offices since August 1917.  There continues to be controversy about who shot first, who shot whom, and why anyone was shooting at all, but the result was that four people were dead, and the American Legion’s notion of 100% Americanism was attached in popular imagination with anti-IWW sentiment.  In this milieu it didn’t take too much imagination to substitute “Bolsheviks” for “Huns,” and associate Labor with Bolsheviks.  1920 was a turbulent time, with Red Hunting Results:

As a result of the strikes and unrest, the strikers were branded as “Reds” and as being unpatriotic.  Fear of strikes leading to a Communist revolution spread throughout the country.   Hysteria took hold.  “Red hunting” became the national obsession.  Colleges were deemed to be hotbeds of Bolshevism, and professors were labeled as radicals.  The hunt reached down to public secondary schools where many teachers were fired for current or prior membership in even the most mildly of leftist organizations. [UMKC]

That some opinion leaders tried to differentiate between socialism and communism didn’t substantially alter the ideological landscape or still some of the more radical rhetoric.   Anarchy, socialism, communism, even support for organized labor was “Left” and bad, conservatism and the “Right” was 100% American.

Fast forward to the late 20th century, after the enactment of Social Security and Medicare, and we have Rand Paul, then of  Kentucky Taxpayers United, explaining why Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme and Medicare is … (you guessed it) … Socialism. [TPM]

Privatization

Since there are 57,469,232 Social Security beneficiaries as of June 2013, of whom 40,298,999 are retired persons, 6,216,500 are survivors, and 10,953,733 are disabled individuals and their dependents [SSA] it’s no longer politically expedient to speak of repealing Social Security.   The modern opponents instead talk about privatizing the system.  Their “free market” solution to a non-existent problem involves transforming the Social Security program into “private individual accounts” to be invested in Wall Street.   Failing that, the opponents would like very much to have access to the Special Issue securities, which are held in the Social Security Trust Funds and are currently not available to the public.

The last serious attempt at Privatization came in President George W. Bush’s February 5, 2005 State of the Union speech the details of which changed as the President was buffeted by political winds.  The final gasps included private accounts, reduced benefits, clawback provisions, and limited investment in unspecified index funds. [CAP] By the end of 2005 the President’s proposal was DOA.   In fact, as of March 2005 about 58% of our “100% Americans” were opposed to the proposal.  [WaPo]

The privatization of Medicare isn’t meeting with much more enthusiasm, polling conducted in 2011  found 58% of Americans opposed the GOP plan to replace the Medicare program with private health policies for seniors  subsidized with coupons from the federal government.  [TPR]

In short, when faced with a choice of privatization or the “socialism” of the Social Security and Medicare, the American public prefers a little “socialism” in its political mix.

And now we come to the third button.

Republicans did a good job of associating the provisions of the “Obamacare” law with socialism, but perhaps not so much when the actual name of the law is put forward.  A Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll in March 2013 found a majority favorable rating for the major elements of the Affordable Care Act, except for the individual mandate.   In short, people liked the tax credits for small business owners, closing the infamous dough-nut hole in Medicare Part D, creating insurance exchanges or marketplaces, extending coverage for dependents, subsidy assistance for those purchasing health care insurance, expanding Medicaid, etc… they liked the parts but not the demagogued whole.

The irony is that a minority in the House of Representatives, still held in thrall by the antiquated sloganeering of the early 20th century anti-Left siren songs, could bring down the economic system they purport to espouse — turning their paeans into a eulogy for the free market system.

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