Demonizing the Few to Alienate and Sway the Many

John O’Kane

The only media fixation that’s more irritating than the saturation coverage of candidates running for an office nearly two years ahead of the election instead of discussing issues, is the punditry of phrase-pinning, the constant refrain that certain candidates are “socialist” and therefore untouchables.
George Stephanopoulos recently destroyed what burgeoning relevance had surfaced about this discredited ism with one of his patented interruptions. The issue at hand was whether the Democrats would have to field a candidate more mainstream in order to beat Trump. He blurted that the problem the “left” is having is that 75% of independents are uncomfortable with socialism and especially a socialist candidate. The air cleared, the “powerhouse roundtable” could turn to Joe Biden’s troubles (This Week, 4/7/19).
Polling-artifice can deliver a wealth of surprises. Many Americans react to the mere mention of “socialism” like it might leave a toxic stain on their being, so when questions are crafted to force a limited choice about it the results can be quite predictable. Those same independents supported Bernie Sanders and he has called himself a socialist from the start. With such an example we should be witnessing an epidemic of copycats.
But perhaps Bernie was immune because his transparency and passion trumped a claim that most didn’t really believe anyway.
Much of the mainstream media has been claiming for some time that the Democratic Party is moving to the “far left” and this labeling is often interchangeable with “socialist.” Jonathan Karl, piling on this sentiment, said that the 2020 election “will be a referendum on socialism” (This Week, 4/14/19). Hence this media’s obsession with the new firebrands in Congress, particularly Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’re certainly not your weekend liberals who spend most of their time fundraising or hanging around K Street. They challenge the bipartisan do-nothing consensus and as a result seem so far removed from biz-as-usual that they’re destined for overkill coverage. They deserve attention, but this media has little interest in putting their resurgence in perspective. Since they’re so different than the standard Democrats in tone and style—forget substance for a moment—short-cut labeling works just fine.
The perfect formula for creating external threats: Demonize the few to alienate and sway the many, the gullible public; convince them these upstarts are really only the aggressive tip of the iceberg, that the whole party is becoming outside the mainstream, thus mimicking the Republicans’ persistent refrain.
The bulk of Democrats are still fixated on the Russians stealing the election and engaging in all sorts of nefarious actions against us; forming a bloc to challenge the Green New Deal proposed by a few; protecting incumbents in the upcoming election cycle; supporting Trump’s military excesses in the face of continued austerity, etc.
They’re even taking swipes at their more popular colleagues, dissolving the facade of unity, according to Aida Chavez (The Intercept, 4/12/19).
The public appears to be in sync here. According to a recent survey by the Hidden Tribes Project, the views of the Democrats who post on social media tend to be liberal and progressive but they are outnumbered two to one by those who don’t post and tend to be more moderate and conservative (“Liberals on Twitter Don’t Speak for Quiet Majority,” New York Times, 4/10/19).
A few more Congressional Democrats are admittedly starting to support Medicare for All, but how telling it was when Nancy Pelosi went on record recently assuring the private insurance industry their fears of this passing were unwarranted. How was she re-elected if the party is moving to the left?
Sticking with healthcare, can the call for Medicare for All be deemed that radical anyway when it is essentially the healthcare system in place for virtually every advanced industrial country, none of which are “socialist?” The northern European countries, especially Scandinavia, are often labeled socialist by those who conflate them with authoritarian, one-party controlled states which barely exist, but they’re multi-party, democratic states. The first attempt to get Medicare for All occurred in the mid-1960s, the current Medicare program in place for Seniors the compromise from that failure. The Democratic Party was hardly staffed with radicals in those days, though LBJ’s Great Society consensus included a different breed of liberal.
The Great Society liberal programs were essentially a retooling of the New Deal. It’s no accident that one of the biggest offerings from the new breed in Congress is the Green New Deal, a remaking of priorities through a massive public-private partnering modeled on the public works projects of the 1930s to invest in green, renewable energy, and a host of other related shifts designed to create quality jobs and bring more of the excluded into the system.
The goal of FDR’s programs was to stabilize capitalism not scrap it and start over with a socialist boilerplate. Getting the unemployed on the payroll was of course a major incentive but those programs were not meant to last and they were compromises, not meant to replace the private sector. This mentality was reflected in Social Security, a pension system devised by the Rockefellers and FDR’s class to ward off the system’s complete collapse. It was meant as a kind of stopgap, a last resort to supplement the hoped for growth of private plans beyond the Depression.
If the New Deal stabilized capitalism, the Great Society, proffered during a quite prosperous time, attempted to make it more secure by completing and deepening the innovations of the 1930s. The Democrats had the power of the postwar consensus on their side, the partnering of labor, management and government to build the middle class, and they controlled Congress during much of this stretch. Tax policy was a significant tool for advancing the middle class and including more of the excluded. The bracket for the highest earners was 70% (down from 91% during the Ike years), and this revenue stream fed the programs that could make this happen.
Proposals by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren to tax the rich at a higher rate are essentially a throwback to those years when capitalism offered protections to the lower and middle classes, and are in sync with what Bernie Sanders has pushed for years. They are certainly not “socialist.”
In this climate of labeling and political correctness there can be no clarity on what socialism is and how it differs from social democracy or some other emerging social formation, impeding progress toward new ways of thinking through our polarized state. The demonizing of positions deemed to be liberal or radical is nothing new, but this time around it’s clear that it’s being done to discredit policies and ideas that huge numbers of Americans want, or might want. Label them “socialist” and they’ll have second thoughts.
In his recent column Paul Krugman claims that neither the Green New Deal nor Medicare for All are “socialist in the traditional sense” (New York Times, 4/12/19).
Those in the media who see socialism breaking out everywhere hardly read Krugman but we have to wonder what a non-traditional socialism might look like. Perhaps it should be re-labeled. But first we should become firmly anti-anti-socialist and reconsider the relationship between capitalism, the public sector and labor.
The existing system has in effect been a species of un-labeled socialism for a select group of corporate brokers who pander market fundamentalism while usurping the public sector for some time. This partnership works toward the dissolution of democratic freedoms and the voiding of checks and balances in a virtual one-party state. Whatever the smattering of sympathies finally is among those on the left, they’re certainly for more democratic freedoms that can lead to checking the power excesses of the current corporate-socialist authorities, and above all bringing labor back into the partnership.
We’ve shifted so far to the right over the past several years that moves or even suggestions to revive an earlier status quo seem “far left” to many, but the new constituency for Sanders and the progressive faces in Congress see the political spectrum differently. It’s propelled mostly by millennials and post-millennials who’ve been exposed to new social models and witnessed the failure of the existing partnership, some the direct victims of the 2008 crash. These models themselves were responses to the failure of traditional socialism, its top-down centralization of power and economies of scale especially, that mandated anti-democratic methods. Bred on the wave of Zapatista-inspired anti-globalization movements and their flare-ups in the more recent Occupy movement, which drew attention to inequality through the coining of the 1%, they distrust large state-driven structures and parties supported by special interests. Strongly influenced by anarchism, they believe in seeding the scattered and repressed localities with the tools to participate in their own destiny; giving them access to a social contract permitting their perpetual input.
The big ideas of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal require a considerable degree of centralized control and this perhaps explains the reluctance to quickly embrace them even by some liberals. But Medicare is devoid of special interests and eliminates the overhead that can expropriate value, while the Green New Deal bonds previously excluded interests and communities with a redirected alliance of government and business.
But we’re in uncharted territory and the value of anti-anti-socialism is remaining open to what can happen through crafting one success at a time, using each to spawn a narrative series that will eventually redefine a replacement for “socialism.”

Reprinted from CounterPunch, April 26, 2019.