An old-fashioned red scare? Sanders, socialism, and the Democrats’ anti-communism

Did you know that Bernie Sanders is on the verge of destroying the Democratic Party?

Or that his self-declared preference for democratic socialism and a ‘political revolution’ aimed at restraining the billionaire class are actually the greatest dangers to progress in America?

Did you also know that if you vote for him as the Democratic candidate you are basically handing the election to the Republicans?

If you did not know these things, then you must not have tuned in to cable news within the last 48 hours. As Bernie Sanders’ poll numbers have continued to surge, particularly in New Hampshire and Iowa, it would seem as if many figures from the Democratic Party officialdom have suddenly discovered the grave threat his campaign poses to the nation.

For the supposed good of party and country, a number of prominent Democrats have jumped into the media spotlight to warn us all about what awful things will happen if Sanders gets the nomination. It’s some pretty scary stuff. And, truth be told, they might not be making all of it up.

Questions of electability have so far been the main angle from which most Clinton-supporting Democrats have approached the thorn-in-their-side Sanders campaign. When he was down around 15 or 20 percent in national polls a few months back, that was the only real concern that mattered probably.

But now, with serious people beginning to fathom the possibility that he might win a few states, or even through some stroke of luck the nomination itself, a different set of questions is being raised. It is no longer just an issue of whether Sanders himself is electable, but whether he and his dangerous ideology jeopardizes the whole party’s chances in November.

And that is where this unpredictable race begins to take a very old, ugly, and unfortunately all-too-predictable turn. This is where it begins to steer down a well-worn path that has led to the death of many a progressive movements and coalitions in our country’s history. Enter that classic tool of political reaction: red-baiting.

In their panic over poll numbers and primaries, it seems as if some Clinton supporters have decided the time is right for a good old fashioned red scare. Correctly anticipating that the GOP would resort to such tactics, more than a few in the Democratic establishment have opted to beat them to the punch.

The Missouri duo of Governor Jay Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill have been among the most prominent in raising the red specter over the last couple of days. They have teamed up in an attempt to pour water on the grassroots fire that Bernie has generated.

“Here in the heartland, we like our politicians in the mainstream, and he is not – he’s a socialist,” Governor Nixon exclaimed to the New York Times. Radical ideas like affordable college, healthcare for every person, or heavier taxes on Wall Street hedge fund managers are apparently just not tenable in middle America. “He’s entitled to his positions, and it’s a big-tent party,” Nixon said, “but as far as having him at the top of the ticket, it would be a meltdown all the way down the ballot.”

Sen. McCaskill also wants you to know that socialism is not something Democrats should be playing around with. “It is very hard,” she reasons, “for most Americans to see how socialism would cure the problems we are facing right now.” The 43 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers who recently told the Des Moines Register they consider themselves socialists might differ with her, but I digress.

Bernie Sanders would be a dream candidate for the Republican Party, McCaskill tells us. The GOP is just waiting for Sanders to tear Hillary down so that they can then have a run at him in the general election. “The Republicans won’t touch him because they can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle,” McCaskill argues. For what it’s worth, she’s probably right.

David Brock, the head of a pro-Clinton super PAC called Correct the Record, was even less polished in his remarks: “He’s a socialist… He’s got a 30-year history of affiliation with a lot of whack-doodle ideas and parties. Think about what the Republicans will do with the fact that he’s a socialist in the fall.”

A lot of these attacks on Sanders are sparking debates about what the word socialism even really means. It’s an important question. Imagining what a socialist alternative to the current system might look like is certainly an exercise that deserves to be the topic of a broad national conversation. But that’s not what’s at issue here, at least not immediately.

By raising the issue of Sanders’s socialism as a bogeyman, Clinton’s supporters are doing more than just embracing the reprehensible tactics of fearmongering and demonization. They are playing a dangerous game that could hurt the chances of whoever the nominee is once these primaries and caucuses are over. Though they may see their red scare campaign against Sanders as a short-term political tactic, it poses a long-term threat to the whole movement for progress.

Red-baiting and anticommunism

Unfortunately, the bypassing of substantive debate and the resort to smearing an opponent with the label of socialist, red, pinko, radical, or communist is not a new development in American politics. It has popped up many times throughout our history, usually at just about the time that a broad popular coalition for change is either making strong advances or is poised to do so. It always tries to paint leaders and movements with a foreign brush and raise suspicions about the “American-ness” of programs for reform.

In the years when labor was on the move during World War I, a time that saw the organizing of major strikes by the Industrial Workers of the World and the founding of the Communist Party, right wing reactionaries turned to a combination of fear and force to short-circuit growing challenges to the prevailing order. The First Red Scare of 1919-21 brought vicious attacks on progressive movements across the board. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer led the deportation of hundreds of labor leaders and left wingers of various stripes.

During the Depression, when the united strength of labor and the People’s Front pushed Roosevelt to carry the New Deal forward, Wall Street went on the offensive. They tried to hang the socialist tag around Roosevelt’s neck and denounced the growth of the CIO as a red plot to undermine America. The attacks only intensified following World War II, when labor militancy was on the rise and the left’s influence was growing internationally. With the launching of the Cold War abroad and the McCarthy blacklists at home, the red scare entered its most menacing period.

Though the McCarthy years are the most talked about period of red-baiting, it certainly wasn’t the last. Red-baiting and racism came together, as they often do, when Martin Luther King Jr. and many civil rights leaders were hounded by accusations of socialist and communist influence in the 1950s and 60s. Many activists opposing the war in Vietnam were also on the receiving end of anti-socialist smears.

You might have thought that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the USSR that red-baiting might have lost some of its currency. But who can forget the Tea Party attacks on President Obama’s supposed socialism or his big government takeover of healthcare? Van Jones was run out of his White House green jobs advisory position in 2009 over accusations of socialist links.

And it was only a few years ago that Rep. Allen West of Florida, in an imitation of old Joe McCarthy, was waving a piece of paper and claiming the Congressional Progressive Caucus were all a bunch of commies. As has been said, the first time is tragedy, the second time farce.

In all of these cases, the red scare tactic – more properly understood historically as anticommunism – has been a boon to the forces of reaction and a drag on the forces for progress. It is a divide and conquer strategy that splits left and center and denies the American people the chance to work together to create democratic change.

Why now?

Though the attacks of McCaskill, Nixon, Brock and others come nowhere close to the rabid smears that some red-baiters have employed in the past, they are certainly flirting with some of these unsavory historical characters. They should be giving second thought to what they are getting themselves into.

The Sanders campaign is surging at just the right time in the polls. This, of course, is making many in the Clinton camp nervous. They worry about a repeat of 2008, another time when their candidate seemed to have the nomination in the bag. That’s understandable.

Raising questions about Sanders’s electability in red states is no doubt a legitimate topic for debate. And of course there is room for doubts about the political feasibility of some of his proposals, given the potential hurdle of a right-wing dominated Congress. But is painting a caricature of Bernie as a red flag-waving radical really the responsible thing for Clinton’s backers to be doing?

It’s not only ethically wrong, but actually very short-sighted politically.

Keeping all of Bernie’s diehard voters on board for Clinton, should she emerge as the nominee, is already going to be a challenge. Likewise, if Sanders wins the nomination, the GOP is going to do everything it can to pry Hillary supporters away from him. Given how crucial unity is going to be in November, it is not very smart for Democrats to be putting even more obstacles between the supporters of the two candidates. Yet that is exactly what the red-baiting on the part of some of Clinton’s people threatens to do.

The big moneyed interests at the core of the ultra-right forces will do anything to stop the advance of the people’s movements. We can count on them to do all of this kind of dirty work and more. Do Democrats really need to be helping them out? 

Photo: Mic Smith/AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.