In this year’s elections, Republicans went all-in on the message that Joe Biden and the Democrats are promoting a “socialist agenda.” This is not a new strategy, obviously; during the Obama years, the Republican National Committee nearly passed a resolution branding their opponents the “Democrat Socialist Party.” But it’s a lot more pervasive now. Back in April 2019, Mitch McConnell told reporters he was advising all Republican Senate candidates to describe themselves as “the firewall that saves the country from socialism.” GOP Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have been hammering that theme in Georgia’s runoff elections as they fight to hold their seats and maintain Republican control of the Senate. It’s the kind of thing political parties gripped by extremism tend to do: accuse their opponents of even more extremism.
To cut through all of this fearmongering, I thought it might be useful to talk with an actual self-identified socialist. Fortunately, Intelligencer happens to have one on staff. I spoke with my colleague Sarah Jones about whether there are really any elected Democrats who share her socialist views and why Republicans are insisting that there are.
Ed: You are a real-live socialist, right?
Sarah: Indeed! I am a bona fide socialist and trade unionist — a Koch brother’s worst nightmare.
Ed: How long have you been a socialist, if I may ask?
Sarah: That’s an interesting question. It’s hard to say, exactly, because I spent my early twenties separating myself from conservative evangelicalism, and the process wasn’t totally linear. But by the time I was 24 or so, I’d become more familiar with Marxism and had concluded that the left had more convincing explanations and more viable solutions for my socioeconomic circumstances.
Ed: So what’s your working definition of “socialism” or “socialist”?
Sarah: To me, a socialist is anyone who wants to redistribute resources and power from the ruling class to the working class. (Power is key here, because otherwise we’re talking about social democracy.) When I think about the future I want, I don’t imagine a reformed capitalism but something else entirely. I think human beings deserve more than to be sources of profit or cheap labor and that liberation isn’t possible in a capitalist system, so I want to replace that system with a completely different political economy that is based on principles of solidarity. That’s really a short answer, and there’s a lot more to understand — like what solidarity means, what it requires of us, and how it should influence our positions on issues like abortion and LGBT rights and immigration — but you can’t write treatises all the time. Sorry, brothers and sisters!
Ed: Given that definition, can you think of specific elected Democrats whom you would describe as socialist? How about the most famous democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders?
Sarah: Well, it’s complicated. We don’t really hear Bernie Sanders talk about abolishing capitalism! And that distinguishes him from most socialists; anti-capitalism is kind of the big idea. But he does advance a fundamentally leftist, materialist critique of our economy and government, and by identifying himself openly as a democratic socialist, I think he has done a lot to make the label more mainstream.
Ed: Let’s go to the other extreme within the Democratic Party. First of all, do you think Joe Biden has a socialist bone in his body?
Sarah: Haha, no. I do not! I take him entirely at his word; when he says he is not a socialist, I believe him.
Ed: Me too. But then again, Trump and other Republicans have consistently called him a senile stooge for the actual socialists who will soon run the government. So let’s look at some particulars: What are Kamala Harris’s red credentials? Trump publicly called her a “communist” prior to the elections.
Sarah: Senator Harris has never claimed to be a socialist. On some issues, she’s certainly on the left side of the Democratic Party, but that’s not saying much. I think we forget sometimes how conservative both our major parties are. Anyway, in Harris’s case, I think there’s a racist subtext to the red-baiting — one that is also present in recent attacks on Raphael Warnock and was present, previously, in similar attacks on Barack Obama. Certain Republicans are always going to portray a liberal person of color as some kind of radical — no matter how much effort that person puts into tacking away from the label.
Ed: Let’s be clear here: It’s not just Trump who is into red-baiting, which is what separates the current generation of Republicans from their predecessors. When the John Birch Society’s Robert Welch claimed then-President Eisenhower was a commie, he was cut out of the conservative movement for good. When the Republican president of the United States called Kamala Harris a communist, everybody yawned. Is it possible these birds have degraded their terms of abuse into meaningless slurs?
Sarah: I do think that has happened. Look, as you’ve noted, this is not a new line of attack. The Cold War is over. My generation did not grow up with it. We did, however, go through two life-altering economic crises by the time our oldest peers turned 40. Public attitudes are changing, and Republicans aren’t keeping up with the times. (Neither, for that matter, are most Democrats.) I don’t think anyone outside the Fox News/Newsmax audience really believes that Joe Biden is some kind of Bolshevik. It obviously doesn’t make sense. Red-baiting might help Republicans in some areas of Florida but not, I think, anywhere else.
Ed: Well, in Georgia’s Senate runoffs, Republican incumbent David Perdue’s whole message is that his reelection is necessary to “save America from socialism.” If Democrats win both those Georgia races, their Senate majority will depend on unanimous support from their conference, which includes senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. You’re from southwest Virginia, near Manchin’s stomping grounds. Have you ever seen him offer a clenched fist or heard him challenge the power elites of his state?
Sarah: No! Absolutely not. Appalachia has produced plenty of communists and socialists. Joe Manchin is not one of them — nor, again, does he pretend to be. Like Biden, Manchin is very honest about what he does and does not believe. There’s nothing subversive about him.
Ed: Yeah, I figure that if Biden goes all red on him, he’ll fight it along with his good friend Republican “centrist” Susan Collins, whose reelection he endorsed. Anyway, getting back to Georgia, what do you make of Kelly Loeffler in the latest debate shifting to the term “radical liberal” for Raphael Warnock? Perdue keeps calling his Democratic opponent, the Clintonian technocrat Jon Ossoff, a “radical socialist.” Does this suggest Loeffler’s focus groups are dictating a shift?
Sarah: I think Kelly Loeffler is just an incoherent person. I’m not convinced she puts much thought into her verbiage at all. But also, there’s a certain amount of incoherence baked into the GOP’s red-baiting. They play so loose with terminology that it has become meaningless — liberal, socialist, it’s all the same to them. (Just not to the left.)
Republican candidates haven’t left themselves another way to be. They’re running as members of the party of radical wealth inequality in the middle of an economic catastrophe. It’s not as if they can come out and say what they really think or believe. It’s easier to attack bogeymen.
Ed: And to defend radical wealth inequality as the American way. Wait … am I a socialist? Is it “catching?”