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Republicans have called Democrats “socialist” for decades.
The attack has always been in bad faith, distorting what Democrats really believe.
But by continuing with their policies, the Democrats have a chance to reverse the attack.
Michael Gordon is a longtime Democratic strategist, a former spokesperson for the Department of Justice and the director of strategic communications firm Group Gordon.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Pete Buttigieg, while campaigning in 2019 as a Democratic presidential candidate, said the GOP would label Democrats “mad socialists” regardless of the policies they promote.
In the first six months of Biden’s presidency, Buttigieg’s (now Biden’s transportation secretary) prediction could not have been more correct. Republicans called the widely popular infrastructure plan a five-lane highway to socialism. They are gearing up for a mid-term message that will label every Democratic politician, no matter what their common sense, as part of the so-called “socialist agenda.”
Perhaps they think that because their congressional candidates did better than expected in 2020 (Kevin McCarthy called the results a “mandate against socialism”), this message will continue to work. But if Democrats are smart, they will reverse this attack and use it to their advantage.
At first glance, the GOP claiming that the Democrats are a socialist party is nonsense. While the Republican Party has become a personality cult built around Donald Trump, Democrats are truly a big tent party built on an array of people and ideologies. More left-wing and more moderate Democrats are working together to pass legislation that benefits Americans, like the recently introduced child tax credits.
In fact, since the start of the 2020 campaign, many prominent Democratic primaries have been won by more moderate Democrats. Joe Biden handily won the 2020 Democratic nomination, and then the general election, on a moderated post. But the moderate Democrats’ winning streak does not end there.
Terry McAuliffe, a moderate former governor of Virginia, won the Democratic primary to seek a second term. His victory was noted by many as a victory for the establishment wing of the party.
And in the hotly contested Democratic primary for New York City mayor, Eric Adams, a Republican turned Democrat and one of the race’s most moderate candidates, beat many challengers to his left for the nomination. Maya Wiley, who was supported by many of the party’s more progressive members, finished third.
Clearly, the people who show up to vote in the Democratic primaries – and by extension their chosen candidates – are not socialists. But that doesn’t stop the GOP from using it as a powerful attack. Republicans will use it not because it’s true but because they think it’s effective. Moderate members of Congress from Max Rose in New York to Harley Rouda in California fell in 2020 in the shadow of bogus claims of socialism against all Democrats.
Democrats have shunned the GOP’s “socialist” branding – but now is the time for them to fight back.
If Democrats are serious about defeating the false accusation of “socialism,” they must avoid it. Joe Biden has done it before: recently he argued that the Democratic version of capitalism is superior to that of the GOP. He touts the record growth and record job creation of his presidency as proof that Democrats are the party that really knows how to run the economy, whether the GOP calls them socialist or not.
Indeed, the best way for Democrats to counter attacks calling them socialists is to improve the lives of Americans. Liberals and Conservatives alike expect government to help them make their lives easier and better. Take Obamacare: Republicans spent most of a decade calling it socialism, but it now has one of the greatest popularities of all time. Stimulus checks have also been called socialism, but a whopping 78% of Americans, including a good majority of Republicans, support them.
Democrats are expected to pass the litany of other popular bills they are upholding because they could be accused of socialism. Mitch McConnell called the infrastructure package a “socialist experiment,” but it remains widely popular among the American public. If Democrats are to fend off absurd attacks by the GOP, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer should make sure the infrastructure package is passed.
And while they’re at it, they should laugh at the socialist claim. Laugh it off. “We are not socialists. We just care about the people, and they are the reapers of progress.” Or find their own expression that replaces socialism – like the responsible capitalism of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Or maybe we are creating something better here, now: compassionate capitalism.
Make sure the government helps people when times get tough, like Democrats did during the pandemic. Then all the lies that the Democratic Party is socialist will be overwhelmed by the praise they receive for being the party that actually does it.
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