Socialism: the never-present threat.
Let me elaborate. Socialism, in one sense – the belief that governments should exist to better the lives of their citizens across social lines – was a social movement whose influences continue to resonate today with members of both American political parties, workers and employers of all political persuasions, and members of both the private and the public sphere. Socialists share some credit for, among other things, the 40-hour work week, weekends, paid time off, and many other amenities that we today take for granted. These benefits were not historically included in most compensation packages, and did not arise spontaneously from the effects of competition; people fought (often literally) for them, and ultimately, achieved them.
But there is another socialism – the socialism that pundits talk about when they glance ominously at Shepard Fairey prints of President Obama’s head. This socialism is drawn less from historical socialism than from the legacy of Communism: forcible confiscation of property, mass starvation and poverty resulting from inefficient allocation of resources, and governmental repression through propaganda, military and police overreach, and arbitrary official action. It’s dystopian, and rooted powerfully in the struggle that the United States and other Western powers have often been locked into against regimes that seem, in many ways, to have little regard for human rights.
Why can the American right deploy the image of a Soviet-noir United Socialist States of America when it should be manifestly clear that no one – Republican or Democrat – wants to live in a police state like the one described? The left is also guilty at times of playing the “Authoritarian” card, fixating their criticism on Republican support of police and military concerns. Essentially, both sides are suggesting that the other wants to lead us down a dark road of legal abuse and unaccountable enforcement.
I think that this state of affairs emerges from something I call “policy creep.” It’s fueled in some ways by active misinformation campaigns and scare tactics deployed by partisan politicians, but it also appears spontaneously, in the wild, as a weird result of our debate habits.
Let’s begin with the proposition that Democrats and Republicans in general hold essentially different philosophies and values, and from them arrive at often quite different conclusions. Culturally both parties share quite a bit, but most members of the parties hold values and engage in thought processes that take them different places from their counterparts in the opposite party. Because of this, it’s sometimes difficult to catch the nuances of an opposing argument – the crucial points in, for example, the abortion debate, will seem to a non-receptive audience like insincere pandering or nonsensical gibberish.
This leads to a lot of stereotyping and very little listening. A few examples: President Obama has never made any overtures toward the restriction of gun rights other than once suggesting that valuing weaponry is a little backward. But there are plenty of people absolutely convinced that the Obama plan is to take away everyone’s guns. People think that Obama wants to institute national redistribution, taking away all personal property and replacing it with public largesse. Why?
Because Democrats desire equality and justice alongside freedom. Small policy differences get folded into a general worldview about Democrats: they like taxing and applying government remedies. This kind of general-purpose knowledge about the parties translates quickly to stereotyping – when you are unaware of a specific candidate’s proposals or a party’s mainstream message, you resort to your pre-existing conception of “Democrat.”
These stereotypes are getting uglier: though there is no evidence of corruption in the stimulus bill, it’s often asserted that Obama personally distributed the funds to his supporters and friends. While this could perhaps merely fall under the umbrella of “conspiracy theories,” it also evinces a kind of policy creep due to a general conservative skepticism about public funds: if you already think government grants are corrupt, then it doesn’t take much to see corruption in a massive economic support bill.
It’s a form of the confirmation bias, sure, but it results in strange things: people convinced that Obama wants to take their guns, or that he’s going to tax us all at 70%, or that he’s going to choke industry because he hates capitalism. These stereotypes purport to read through stated policy positions, party platforms, and governing history, and see into the dark, twisted soul of the person in charge. These policies exist only in the minds of low-information voters who have been sold a line about the opposition and who toe that line past fact and evidence and deep into the territory of quasi-religious belief.
I worry about it because one only has to take a jaunt over to Yahoo or the Blaze’s comment page to see that there are people who are convinced that Romney’s the only one telling the truth, and that Obama is lying so that he can continue trashing the country. This comes from one of the most offensive stereotypes of Democrats available: that they are so internationalist that they want to see America fail.
This is not only patently false, it’s also stupid and dangerous. I fear for people like this – and I am also a little afraid of them. There is a great tide of ignorance that is now being acknowledged and catered to on the national scale. Let’s all take a moment to see what our candidates actually stand for – when we become beholden to a fear of the unknown that we foster by avoiding facts and narratives that do not fit our stereotypes, we become prey for demagogues, reactionaries, and tyrants.