The Republican Party is currently firmer in its accusation that the Democrats are steering the nation "towards socialism" than it was during Joe McCarthy's Red Scare of the 1950s, when the senator from Wisconsin was accusing Harry Truman of harboring Communist Party cells in the government. Truman had stirred conservative outrage by arguing that the government had the authority to impose anti-lynching laws on the states and by proposing a national health-care plan. But what really bugged the Republicans was that Truman, who had been expected to lose in 1948, had not just won the election but restored Democratic control of Congress. To counter this ominous electoral trend, conservative Republicans, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, announced in 1950 that their campaign slogan in that year's Congressional elections would be "Liberty Against Socialism." They then produced an addendum to their national platform, much of which was devoted to a McCarthyite rant charging that Truman's Fair Deal "is dictated by a small but powerful group of persons who believe in socialism, who have no concept of the true foundation of American progress, and whose proposals are wholly out of accord with the true interests and real wishes of the workers, farmers and businessmen."
Truman fought back, reminding Republicans that his policies were outlined in the 1948 Democratic platform, which had proven to be wildly popular with the electorate. "If our program was dictated, as the Republicans say, it was dictated at the polls in November 1948. It was dictated by a 'small but powerful group' of 24 million voters," said the president, who added, "I think they knew more than the Republican National Committee about the real wishes of the workers, farmers and businessmen."
Truman did not cower at the mention of the word "socialism," which in those days was distinguished in the minds of most Americans from Soviet Stalinism, with which the president -- a mean cold warrior -- was wrangling. Nor did Truman, who counted among his essential allies trade unionists like David Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky and Walter Reuther, all of whom had been connected with socialist causes and in many cases the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, rave about the evils of social democracy. Rather, he joked that "Out of the great progress of this country, out of our great advances in achieving a better life for all, out of our rise to world leadership, the Republican leaders have learned nothing. Confronted by the great record of this country, and the tremendous promise of its future, all they do is croak, 'socialism.'"
Savvy Republicans moved to abandon the campaign. The return to realism was led by Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who feared that her party was harming not just its electoral prospects but the country. That summer she would issue her "Declaration of Conscience" -- the first serious challenge to McCarthyism from within the GOP -- in which she rejected the anti-communist hysteria of the moment:
"Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism --
The right to criticize;
The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest;
The right of independent thought."
Republicans might be determined to end Democratic control of Congress, Smith suggested in her declaration:
"Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.
"I doubt if the Republican Party could -- simply because I don't believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest."
Most Republicans lacked the courage to confront McCarthy so directly. But Smith's wisdom prevailed among leaders of the RNC and the GOP chairs of Congressional committees, who ditched the Liberty Against Socialism slogan and reduced Taft's 1,950-word manifesto to a 99-word digest that Washington reporters explained had been cobbled together to "soft pedal" the whole "showdown on 'liberty against socialism'" thing. Representative James Fulton, who like many other GOP moderates of the day actually knew and worked with Socialist Party members and radicals of various stripes, was blunter. The cheap sloganeering, he argued, had steered the party away from the fundamental question for the GOP in the postwar era: "whether we go back to Methuselah or offer alternative programs for social progress within the framework of a balanced budget."
Imagine if today a prominent Republican were to make a similar statement. The wrath of Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin and the Tea Party movement would rain down upon him. The Club for Growth would organize to defeat the "Republican in Name Only," and the ideological cleansing of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Margaret Chase Smith would accelerate. Some of my Democratic friends are quite pleased at the prospect; as today's Republicans steer off the cliffs of extremism that they avoided even in the days of McCarthy, these Democrats suggest, the high ground will be cleared for candidates of their liking. But that neglects the damage done to democracy when discourse degenerates, when the only real fights are between a party on the fringe and another that assumes that the way to win is to move to the center-right and then hope that fears of a totalitarian right will keep everyone to the left of it voting the Democratic line.
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If universal building codes and health protections for children can be successfully depicted by our debased media as assaults on American values and the rule of law, then the right has already won, no matter what the result is on election day. And a nation founded in revolt against empire, a nation that nurtured the radical Republican response to the sin of slavery, a nation that confronted economic collapse and injustice with a New Deal and a War on Poverty, a nation that spawned a civil rights movement and that still recites a Pledge of Allegiance (penned in 1892 by Christian socialist Francis Bellamy) to the ideal of an America "with liberty and justice for all" is bereft of what has so often in our history been the essential element of progress.
That element -- a social democratic critique frequently combined with an active Socialist Party and more recently linked with independent socialist activism in labor and equal rights campaigns for women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities -- has from the first years of the nation been a part of our political life. This country would not be what it is today -- indeed it might not even be -- had it not been for the positive influence of revolutionaries, radicals, socialists, social democrats and their fellow travelers. The great political scientist Terence Ball reminds us that "at the height of the cold war a limited form of socialized medicine -- Medicare -- got through the Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association and the insurance industry, and made it to President Johnson's desk."
That did not just happen by chance. A young writer who had recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism left the fold of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement to join the Young People's Socialist League. Michael Harrington wanted to change the debate about poverty in America, and perhaps remarkably or perhaps presciently, he presumed that attaching himself to what was left of the once muscular but at that point ailing Socialist Party was the way to do so. In a 1959 article for the then-liberal Commentary magazine, Harrington sought, in the words of his biographer, Maurice Isserman, "to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived 'below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.'"
Harrington succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The article led to a book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which became required reading for policy-makers, selling 70,000 copies in its first year. "Among the book's readers, reputedly, was John F. Kennedy, who in the fall of 1963 began thinking about proposing antipoverty legislation," recalls Isserman. "After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the issue, calling in his 1964 State of the Union address for an 'unconditional war on poverty.' Sargent Shriver headed the task force charged with drawing up the legislation and invited Harrington to Washington as a consultant."