Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vague impressions: "Saving" America from "Socialism" for sixty years

I've been reading over the giant folder of pdf scans I took home from my winter research trip to the American Legion Headquarters this week as I start on a new book chapter. I came across a speech by National Commander George Craig in 1950 to the Chicago Accident and Health Association. Craig would later be elected governor of Indiana. In the speech, Craig criticizes Harry Truman's health care reform proposal, noting the Legion's opposition to "socialized" medicine, in part because socializing it for everyone would diminish the quality of the socialized care veterans were receiving. "If some of the crack-pot do-gooders should have their way ... God forbid," Craig told the audience, "socializing this and socializing that ... they eventually would communize America. They tell us in honeyed words that more concentrated government control of everything will do something for us. They don't tell us what it would do to us."

Craig's words were resonating in my head as I read a recent interview with Newt Gingrich on Asked to explain the subtitle of his latest book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine," Gingrich said:

by any reasonable standard Obama is committed to socialism. I mean socialism in the broad sense. I’m not talking about a particular platform adopted by the International Socialist Movement in the late 19th century. I’m talking about a government-dominated, bureaucratically-controlled, politician-dicatated way of life. Not only have we taken over GM, Chrysler and AIG, but there’s a czar in the White House who believes he can establish the pay scale for 30 companies he’s never been in, for hundreds of people he’s never met. They just nationalized the student loan program. They designed Obamacare so there’s a backdoor road to socialized medicine because it creates an incentive for companies to drop their employees. There’s evidence that hundreds of companies may drop millions of employees from their health insurance and have them go buy individual insurance. So there’s a lot of different practices that would lead us to believe this is socialist operation.

And socialism is inherently secular because it believes the center of authority is not god, the center of authority is not your rights as an individual—the center of authority is the state, and the state gets to decide what you’re allowed to keep and what you’re allowed to do.
Criticizing Obama for being a "socialist" is not something that's novel in Gingrich's book, of course. And Gingrich is forthcoming enough at least to admit when he says "socialism" he doesn't really mean an set of economic policies, or even the historical Socialist Party, but an autocratic political system like the old Eastern Bloc or Communist China. That's the socialism Jim DeMint has in mind, too, in his book, the cover of which suggests freedom-loving Americans are destined for the gulag. It's the socialism of "death panels."

Casting liberal reform as creeping totalitarianism, while not rising anywhere near the bar of plausible, as least made some sense in the context of the early Cold War era. Conservatives thought history was pointing in two directions and the nation had to either continue on its exceptionalist path or slouch toward Marxism. As Roland Reagan put in his "A Time for Choosing" speech in 1964, "You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down—[up] man's old—old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course."

But for those like Gingrich and DeMint and the majority of Tea Party members who came of age during the Goldwater campaign Reagan spoke for, that time for choosing is still with us. It is not enough to disagree on policy ground with the Democratic Party; rather, the very essence of the nation must be "saved" from the scheming of technocrats. Taken to the extreme, even criticizing a multinational oil company that just destroyed a major ecosystem of the North American continent is "un-American." 

Obviously, on something as big as saving the auto industry from bankruptcy or the structure of the nation's health care system, there's enormous room for substantive policy debate. What fascinates me is this nationalist-inspired defense by the Right of America's inherent identity, which to me seems like something encased in amber from a previous historical epoch. Are those born of the politics of the 50s and 60s simply incapable of escaping it? The Soviet other against which we had to constantly steer away from has been dead for 20 years. Even China has chosen not to follow elements of the totalitarian model. When can we finally say the time for America's choosing has come and gone? Why does this need to "save" America from foreign "isms" persist? Too much to break off for today, so I'll leave that for you loyal readers to ponder. 

I don't think it's merely a discursive strategy, like the phrase "take back America" has become. I found this piece, in which Republican members of Congress more or less admit they're stealing a line from the Tea Party for convenience's sake, pretty illuminating. Why waste the time on a book if you don't sincerely believe it?

Following up on a previous post, I thought it was interesting that 46 percent of adults surveyed by NBC this week on immigration issues thought that children of illegal immigrants born in the US should not be granted American citizenship. A net +11 thought that thought immigrants had a positive impact on the "culture and character of the community," while a net -25 thought immigrants had a negative impact on crime. Cultural chauvinism seems to be waning - we'll see how long race takes to follow suit.

It's not likely I'll post over the holiday weekend. If I come up with something interesting on Monday, maybe I'll return then. Thanks for reading.

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