The 2020 presidential election campaign is already in full swing, and the Republicans are in trouble. Coming off a historic defeat in the 2018 midterms, and having shamelessly chained themselves to Donald Trump’s historically unpopular presidency, they now must come up with some way to pull off another improbable victory next year—all the while protecting the large number of Republican Senate seats that are up for grabs, which could swing that chamber back into the Democrats’ hands as well.
What to do in a democracy when facing voters who are (at best) skeptical of what you stand for? One answer would be to come up with better policy ideas that would actually help Americans in a variety of ways. That possibility is off the table, however, because the policy commitments that define the current Republican Party are hugely unpopular with voters but completely nonnegotiable among the party’s leaders and base supporters.
That means that the Republicans will need to continue to rely on a two-pronged strategy. First, they will intensify their efforts to suppress voting among the large majority of people who oppose Republican policies. Second, they will need to rely on content-free sloganeering and demonization to try to convince people that Democrats cannot be trusted.
In this column, I will forgo discussion of the first of those strategies, focusing instead on the wordplay and simplistic symbolism that has already defined the Republicans’ strategy to distract people from Trump’s unpopularity and the party’s losing policy agenda.
The bottom line is that Republicans have put themselves in a corner, leaving them with no choice but to intensify their never-ending claims that Democrats are going to bring socialism to America. More to the point, they are going to continue to misdefine the word socialism itself to drain it of all meaning, other than “bad things that we don’t like.” Will it work? Time will tell; but the fact is that they have no other plausible strategy.
The Power of Words and Symbols in Politics
In response to my assertion that Republicans have no choice but to use misleading rhetoric in their 2020 campaigns, one might object that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Politics has never been merely a policy seminar, and rhetoric (both soaring and vile) along with symbolism must necessarily be part of any political campaign.
The difference is that careful choices of slogans and visual images are typically used to simplify complicated arguments and to make the stakes of a debate viscerally meaningful to voters. Even within the last generation or so, Republicans were capable of engaging in that kind of political campaigning.
For example, although Ronald Reagan was notably successful in using his limited skills as an actor to much greater effect in politics, the actual arguments underlying his folksy delivery were at least identifiable – although typically unconvincing. His Strategic Defense Initiative (mocked at the time as “Star Wars”) was an actual policy proposal involving the development of anti-missile technology that would supposedly have allowed the United States to shoot down incoming missiles from the Soviet Union or other aggressors.
Again, that policy was deeply flawed on the merits, both because it was based on nonexistent technology and would have been deeply destabilizing to the tenuous nuclear standoff between the two superpowers. But the point here is that Reagan was using rhetoric and imagery to support a substantive idea that voters could assess and the Republicans could affirmatively support.
Similarly, even Reagan’s profoundly misguided approach to South Africa’s apartheid regime was at least based on a theory over which reasonable people could argue. Was the Botha regime merely in the middle of an inevitable transition toward inclusion that would be derailed by aggressive international intervention? No, but Reagan’s theory was at least refreshingly clear, and he did not resort to calling Democrats names in that debate (at least not to the exclusion of making his affirmative argument).
Both the senior and junior Bush presidencies similarly relied on rhetorical ploys, but the underlying arguments were not necessarily unpopular or implausible. George H. W. Bush argued, as the country slipped into recession, that government action was unnecessary because the economy is naturally self-correcting. His son claimed that regressive tax cuts would be good for job growth. Both were wrong on the merits, but their political messaging supplemented their arguments rather than standing in for a lack of any argument at all.
What positive, popular stances are Republicans taking today? Their hugely top-heavy tax cut is a bust (both economically and politically). They continue to wage culture war battles that the public largely finds repellent (thank heavens). They have no foreign policy position at all, thanks to Trump’s upending of the party’s standard anti-Russian bellicosity. They stand with banks against borrowers and depositors, and they deny climate change while allowing toxins to be introduced into our water systems. How are they going to run on that platform?
This means that they have to rely on not merely “putting on a happy face” when making their case to the voters. Instead, they must resort to the kind of deep dishonesty that George Orwell famously identified in the mid-twentieth century, twisting words to mean the opposite of what they actually mean, or draining words of any meaning at all.
“Killing all of the people in a village” became “pacification of the local population” during Vietnam, for example, with a horrible policy being hidden behind a nice-sounding word. Who, after all, could be against pacification?
The 2020 strategy for Republicans is the mirror image of using happy words to hide ugly reality. They are misusing a word with actual meaning—socialism (more accurately, the term democratic socialism)—to stand in for everything that they cannot attack on the merits and for which they offer no alternative that they are willing to defend.
Creating Villains and Muddying the Waters
Again, it is inevitable that politics will involve simplification and symbolism. Recent reports indicate, for example, that people are quite unhappy to discover that their tax refunds this year will be smaller than in prior years. Democrats, understandably, are jumping on these reports to attack Republicans’ support for the tax changes that led to this outcome.
Even for those of us who opposed the Trump/Republican tax bill, however, this all seems rather silly. As a short-term matter, after all, most people will see at least a small reduction in their total annual federal income tax payments. The reasons to oppose that bill had to do with the deepening of inequality and the longer-term effects of the bill, which will include large numbers of non-rich people ultimately paying more in taxes (and losing the benefits from federal programs—such as Social Security and Medicare—that Republicans plan to cut in response to the deficits that their own tax plan is creating).
But politics is sometimes about meeting voters where they stand, and many voters view their tax refunds as annual bonuses on which they rely to finance large purchases. An accountant can tell them that their overall tax liability has decreased, but it evidently does not feel that way to someone who has not noticed (and thus not set aside) their paycheck-by-paycheck small (and temporary) increases in take-home pay.
Although I have no sympathy for Republicans, I can imagine their frustration in this situation, because as a policy matter it seems to make no sense. “Why don’t they understand that their taxes are down this year, if only by a little bit?” But if voters want larger refunds, it is hardly surprising that Democrats are there to point out that it was Republicans who shrank those refunds in the process of committing genuine policy malpractice.
In that particular situation, the waters are muddied because voters themselves are confused, and it is certainly not in the Democrats’ interest to say, “Well, to be fair, no matter what else you should think about those tax cuts, they were cuts after all.”
But the Republicans’ overarching strategy has become one large con game to convince people to respond viscerally to imaginary villains and Orwellian distortions. Democrats are being opportunistic in not correcting a cognitive bias in people’s understanding of taxes, but Republicans are aggressively distorting the entire Democratic policy agenda and likening it to collectivist work camps.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was for years the Republicans’ favorite fake monster. Now, with Pelosi’s rising popularity, Republicans have instead decided that first-term congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a better ogress for the moment. That their attempts to vilify her are so ham-handed—such as the release of a video from her college days showing her dancing on a roof in Boston, which only made her more likable to most voters—does not change the fact that they are committed to the idea that she can become the face of the Scary Socialists of Republicans’ nightmares.
And it is not just conservative trolls who are going after Ocasio-Cortez. Republicans in the House of Representatives (some of whom might also be conservative trolls, but that is a separate matter) actually booed her—and only her—when the new class of Democrats in the House took their oaths of office. From trying to claim that she is not truly of modest means to claiming that she mishandles her personal finances, Republicans have targeted Ocasio-Cortez with a ferocity rarely seen in politics.
Democrats have in the past used Newt Gingrich as the (unappealing) face of their opponents’ policies, just as Republicans have used Pelosi (and, in previous decades, Tip O’Neill and Bill Clinton), but the Ocasio-Cortez situation is different in intensity if not also in kind. And it all comes back to that word socialism.
It Matters That “Socialism” Means Something—and That It Is Popular
Ocasio-Cortez, along with Senator Bernie Sanders and some other liberals, embrace the label “democratic socialist,” and conservatives are shocked and amazed. Republicans, because they have isolated themselves in a Fox News-driven bubble, now apparently think that all they have to do is yell “Socialist! Eek!!” every time the Democrats do anything.
Many commentators have noted that the effect of Republicans’ over-reliance on red-baiting has gone beyond merely the predictable diminishing returns to the point where people—especially young people—are now starting to view socialism as a positive thing. If progressive taxation, increasing workers’ pay, and reducing the costs of higher education are socialism, then a lot of people are deciding that socialism sounds pretty good.
That, of course, is not what Republicans want voters to think when they hear the dreaded s-word. Pictures of Stalinist purges and people lining up to buy toilet paper and ill-fitting shoes, along with egregiously inapt comparisons to the current difficulties in Venezuela, are supposed to make everyone run screaming from the Democrats’ very popular policy proposals.
And because Ocasio-Cortez prominently cosponsored the recent “Green New Deal,” that proposal is now part of the Fox/Republican parade of horribles, with claims of “radical enviro-socialism” filling the rightwing media space. There are reasonable arguments that could be made regarding specific Green New Deal proposals, such as the timing and methods to reach certain goals, but Republicans know that they cannot win on those grounds, or at least that they can only win partial victories. Better to simply scream bloody socialist murder and hope to convince people that Democrats have “gone too far.”
When I used to coach debate teams, I would often tell my students something like this: “I know that there will be times when your opponents will be making incredibly bad points, and you’ll be frustrated because they are not engaging with your arguments at all. But that is when you should be most happy, because your opponents’ failure to engage effectively is the best indication that you are winning.”
That is still good advice, not just for academic debates but for politicians as well. Knowing when one has the upper hand is always important (so long as it does not lead to overconfidence). Here, however, we have entered a new situation entirely. It is no longer that Republicans have lapsed into making bad arguments but that they have decided that they actually cannot argue at all.
“That’s socialist!” is not an argument, and as a description of Democrats’ actual policy positions, it is only accurate if one defines socialism to mean changing the rules of the game so that ordinary people can survive in a capitalist economy. By relying on their willingness to shout a single word without ever actually defending their slippery non-definition of it (or their alternative to it), Republicans have at long last exposed the emptiness of their political identity.