OPPOSITION TO “SOCIALISM” IS A DOG WHISTLE FOR RACISM

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

As I imagine you’ve heard, Republicans are attacking President Biden’s and Democrats’ policy proposals as “socialism.” I thought, naively, that Republicans were just trying foster opposition based on Cold War fears by conflating socialism with communism and identifying it as the existential threat to American democracy.

Heather Cox Richardson, with her historical perspective, has opened my eyes to the fact that the opposition to “socialism” has deeper roots in our history and is a dog whistle for racism. (If this use of the term dog whistle is new to you, please see this footnote. [1])

First, socialism is formally defined as an economic and political system where workers own the means of production (e.g., factories, farms, and organizations that provide services as well as the raw materials, machines, tools, and physical facilities used in producing goods and services). This is NOT, by any stretch of the truth, what Biden and Democrats are proposing. Socialism recognizes workers as the essential input to the economy and, therefore, posits that they should own the means of production and be the beneficiaries of the fruits of the economy.

Social democracy, on the other hand, is a political and economic system where a democratic government manages and regulates capitalism (i.e., private ownership of the means of production) to ensure social and economic justice. In our democracy, the government’s commitment to social and economic justice for all is stated in our founding documents – that all people are created equal, that all people should be guaranteed life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness, and that all people have the rights delineated in the Bill of Rights.

The explicit recognition that equal opportunity and true freedom require economic security was stated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his proposal for an economic bill of rights [2] and by Senator Bernie Sanders in his statements on what democratic socialism means to him (although technically speaking, he was describing social democracy and not democratic socialism). [3] [4] (See this footnote for a definition of democratic socialism and communism. [5])

Currently, Republicans are using “socialism” as a dog whistle to mean the use of government resources to promote racial equity and justice. Their dog whistle definition of “socialism” is the use of taxes paid by hardworking white men (and women) to benefit lazy people of color who are happy to live on government benefits. Today’s Republicans claim this “socialism” will undermine American democracy and freedom. The dog whistle is that these policies will undermine the “freedom” and privilege of white people.

This use of “socialism” goes back to 1871 when southern Democrats claimed they opposed voting by Blacks, not due to racism, but because Black voters would elect policy makers who would promote “socialism,” i.e., taxing white property owners to pay for roads, schools, and hospitals that would benefit Blacks. [6] They argued that Black voting would lead to “socialism” that would destroy America (namely the America of white supremacy). [7] [8]

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the use of government resources to enforce desegregation and civil rights was attacked as “socialism” because the costs of implementing desegregation and civil rights (for “undeserving” Black people) would be paid for by taxes on hardworking white men (and women). In 1958, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater accused his own party’s President Eisenhower of succumbing to “the siren song of socialism” for his use of government resources (troops) to enforce desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, High School. The irony was that the Goldwater family had made its money from government funding for dam construction in Arizona. [9]

Republican attacks on government, on a public safety net, and on beneficiaries of public assistance (inaccurately stereotyped as people of color) took on new strength and significance with the election of President Reagan in 1980. Remember Reagan’s attack on the mythical “welfare queen” with her Cadillac and mink coat? The attacks on “socialism” as a dog whistle for racism have only escalated since then.

Today, Republicans are vigorously charging that President Biden and Democrats are working to bring “socialism” to America. They claim that a no-holds-barred fight is necessary to save American from “socialism.” They are even willing to dispense with a commitment to democracy to “save” America. This disregard for democracy dates to at least 1980 when Republican strategist Paul Weyrich stated, “I don’t want everybody to vote …our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s why Republicans have been and are actively engaged in voter suppression efforts. (Weyrich was a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, which today is deeply involved in promoting state voting suppression laws and with the “audit” of voting in Arizona and elsewhere.) In October 2020, Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted, “Democracy is not the objective … liberty, peace, and prosperity are. … democracy can thwart that.” [10]

Republicans are claiming today, as white southern Democrats did after the Civil War, that keeping “socialism” from coming to America requires keeping Black and other likely Democratic voters from voting; democracy, our Constitution, and our founding principles (which make America exceptional) be damned. The racism of the post-Civil War white Democrats’ attacks on “socialism” was made clear by the brutal Jim Crow laws they implemented to keep Blacks in their place and to prevent them from voting.

The implications of today’s Republicans’ claims of needing to prevent “socialism” in America aren’t completely clear, but civil rights, police reform, and social and economic justice are definitely targets. However, the racism behind their attacks on “socialism” is clear and these attacks should no longer be a dog whistle; every American should hear the racism in their attacks on “socialism” loudly and clearly.

[1]      The term dog whistle here is a political adaptation of the fact that a dog whistle can’t be heard by humans but can be heard by dogs. In politics, it refers to language that will be heard as supporting white privilege and supremacy by those people attuned to such sentiments, but won’t be heard by many other people as being racist and where the politician opposing “socialism” – or using other dog whistles – can deny racist intent.

[2]      President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1/11/44, “The economic bill of rights,” retrieved from the Internet 5/22/21 at https://www.ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

[3]    Senator Bernie Sanders, 11/19/15, “Senator Sanders on Democratic Socialism and Defeating ISIS,” retrieved from the Internet 5/22/21 at https://www.c-span.org/video/?400961-1/senator-bernie-sanders-address-democratic-socialism (Sanders begins speaking at 8 mins., defines socialism at 12 mins., and presents his and FDR’s vision at 30 mins. into this 1 hr. 40 min. video)

[4]    Golshan, T., 6/12/19, “Bernie Sanders defines his vision for democratic socialism in the United States,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/2019/6/12/18663217/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-speech-transcript)

[5]     Democratic socialism is socialism where both the economy and society are governed democratically, with decision making by citizens with a focus on economic and social justice. Democratic socialism is not compatible with capitalism, which is based on private ownership of the means of production and, therefore, where the benefits, economic and also social and political power, flow to the owners of capital, i.e., the owners of physical and monetary assets.

Communism is formally defined as an economic and political system where the workers own the means of production and that is dedicated to equality for all, implemented through an authoritarian government. The main difference between communism and socialism is that socialism is compatible with democracy and liberty, while communism requires authoritarianism and denies basic individual liberties.

[6]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/19/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/april-19-2021)

[7]      Cox Richardson, H., 5/14/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-14-2021)

[8]      Cox Richardson, H., 1/16/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-16-2021

[9]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/19/21, see above

[10]     Cox Richardson, H., 5/14/21, see above

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