Fear mongering about Communist plots to take over the world was a dominant theme of conservative politics in the decade following the end of WWII, and not without cause. The Soviet Union had violated almost every term of post war agreements between East and West; Stalin’s cruelty was fully revealed; an “iron curtain” fell into place; newly independent nations were being forced to choose between one or the other, and there really was an American Communist Party. It didn’t help that Communist parties were actively engaged as powerful players in Italy, Greece, France and other Western countries.
But fear mongering, as always, got out of hand. Between Representative Martin Dies (D, TX) who headed the House Un-American Activities Committee, and senator Joe McCarthy (R, WI), commies, socialists and anyone pink were looked for under every rock, everyone was a suspect, reputations and lives were destroyed, nothing helpful was achieved, and Congress used tactics to stifle personal freedom that echoed Stalin himself.
The nation was littered with pamphlets warning about the dangers of creeping socialism. They were all over the place – in offices and factories, schools and churches, living rooms and kitchen tables. Socialism was never well defined, but whatever it was there were two things to know about it. First, the New Deal of FDR, the Fair Deal of HST, and all things progressive were instruments of creeping socialism that would bring ruin to America. Second, the Soviet Union knew how to take advantage of them to hasten the take over of the world. Communists were behind it all. Less clearly voiced was a warning that (uppity, naive) blacks agitating for equal rights were being taken advantage of by socialist provocateurs.
It was all a long time ago, so why rehearse it here? It’s because people now in their 60s and 70s were heavily influenced by it, retaining a deep, fearful suspicion of anything labeled socialist, vaguely understood as anything liberal or progressive. Moreover, they share their fearful suspicions wherever they can in ways that help strengthen extremists tea party libertarianism. They’re good at it. It works.
A recent letter to the editor is a case in point. The writer believes progressives are socialists who, given the chance, will lead the nation to bankruptcy. He would disagree that socialism is vaguely understood. For him it means one thing: “…dependency on the government to provide all our needs.” Isn’t that clear enough? It would be pointless to answer with an argument based on the history and philosophies of the many forms of self described socialist movements that value private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government. It would be gobbledygook double talk to him, obviously a cover up for what he already knows to be true.
It would be possible, but not easy, to argue for a progressive approach to issues, problems, and needs grounded on how they would enhance economic opportunity, restore pathways to the American Dream, and remove unnecessary dangers to life and limb. The argument would have to be framed in language appealing to the value of private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government. But it would have to overcome big obstacles.
That the federal government is likely the best tool to provide resources and make things happen, is repugnant to them. Never mind that everything making prosperity possible in rural America depends on federal policies and investment. Never mind that urban America pays for it. It’s a deeply rooted shibboleth that the government is trying to regulate everything in one’s life. It’s a given, an article of faith. It doesn’t have to be proved, but if you want proof just look at the people who want to regulate guns.
That the full measure of opportunities these values represent would be open to every race and ethnicity no matter what, and that assistance would be given to those who have previously been discriminated against, makes some conservatives very nervous. Bizarre as it may be, it looks to them like others are getting a better shot at the good things in life than they are. Iowa representative King may be too blunt, but not altogether wrong from their point of view. After all, the white middle class defined what it is to be American, why should that not continue to be the standard for all others to meet?
That some people who don’t or won’t work as hard as they do will get something for nothing is appalling. If they won’t work, make them. That hard working folks might be forced to pay taxes for something they don’t want or need is wrong, and what they don’t want or need is welfare going to the undeserving.
Obstacles such as these are not impenetrable Great Big Beautiful Walls. Well framed arguments demonstrating how conservative values can be enhanced through progressive policies will not convince the hard core right wing, but they will deprive them of their best ammunition. In like manner, they will reduce the likelihood that the whackier ideas of far left wing enthusiasts will sway voters to stay home or vote conservative.
Speaking only for myself, I would like to see a legislative agenda that aggressively moves us toward universal health care, reinvests in transportation and communication infrastructure, reforms immigration to open broad pathways for new arrivals, protects the environment, and makes taxes more progressive at the high end.