Republicans Have a History of Weaponizing 'Socialism.' But Do They Understand what it Is?Roundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Social Security, socialism
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in modern American political, social and urban/suburban history, he is the author and editor of several books including White Flight (2005), One Nation Under God (2015), and Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (2019).
During the final presidential debate on Thursday night, President Donald Trump repeatedly charged his opponent, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, of plotting to bring socialism to America.
“He wants socialized medicine. And it’s not that he wants it. His vice president, she is more liberal than Bernie Sanders and wants it even more. Bernie Sanders wants it. The Democrats want it. You’re going to have socialized medicine, just like you want it with fracking,” he said, throwing a flurry of triggering socialism-by-association concepts into his response to Biden’s plan for a government-run health care option.
Weaponizing “socialism” is a familiar trope from conservative politicians, but one with an incredibly poor record.
Back in 1952, President Harry Truman explained that “socialism” had long stood as the reflexive response of Republicans to the New Deal. It was, he charged on the campaign trail, simply “a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.” To prove his point, he rattled off an array of New Deal policies — Social Security, FDIC, price supports for farmers, public power and labor rights — that conservatives had denounced as “creeping socialism.” “Socialism,” the president argued, “is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
Over the next decade, conservatives pushed this same “scare word” socialism on a surprising range of programs and proposals.
When Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine in 1955, for instance, Democrats proposed a federal program to distribute the vaccine to all American schoolchildren. Eisenhower’s secretary of health education and welfare (HEW), a Texas millionaire named Oveta Culp Hobby, objected to the plan: “That’s socialized medicine by the back door, not the front door.”
But the Eisenhower White House wasn’t immune to charges of socialism either. The far-right radio commenter Clarence Manion accused the Republican administration of enabling a “drift toward central government,” holding up the interstate highway system as a prime example of “creeping socialism.” Even the new HEW Department, he said, was “an ominous affront to the last rampart of … state authority and responsibility.”
Though conservatives complained that the Eisenhower administration was, in Barry Goldwater’s famous phrase, a “dime-store New Deal” — a cheap imitation — they mostly cried “socialism” when Democrats were in power. In 1961, the Kennedy administration proposed the program for federal health insurance for senior citizens that would come to be known as Medicare. Soon after, the former actor and conservative activist Ronald Reagan offered a blistering warning in a radio address, one soon widely circulated in a recording titled “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine.” Urging his listeners to take action before it was too late, Reagan warned that “if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”