07/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think Again: Chiller, Socialist Theater

Crossposted with the Center for American Progress

With Danielle Ivory

A heated debate broke out last week over the degree to which incendiary talk by right-wing cable and radio hosts might be fueling a recent spate of murderous violence by disturbed individuals.

We'd like to take a moment to focus on the just plain crazy. Have you noticed that in conservative world, this administration is leading a march on socialism? That's right, the one that refuses to nationalize the banks against the recommendations of Alan Greenspan, among others; the one that has offered gazillions of dollars to bail out private interests run into the ground by billionaires; the one that, on Wednesday, did not even take strong action to regulate the derivative market, which as much as anything helped cause this crisis. No, really...

Just last week alone, Media Matters counted more than 143 mentions of the words "socialism," "socialist," and "socialistic" on the cable news shows -- and that's not including words like "communist" or "Marxist." The word socialist has virtually become an everyday talking point since the Obama administration moved in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lest you think we exaggerate:

* Fox and Friends graded Obama's economic plan with an "S" for socialism.

* Pat Robertson warned that, "before long, we'll have this gigantic socialist colossus."

* Radio personality Michael Savage called Obama a "neo-Marxist fascist dictator in the making," and said that Obama "dreams of Maoist revolution" with "death camps."

* Actor Jon Voight sat down Bill O'Reilly and accused Obama of "bringing us to chaos and socialism," and then suggested that he -- yes, we're still talking about the actor -- might do a better job negotiating with North Korea.

* Glenn Beck called Obama a Marxist and said that we're on the road to socialism. Later, he noted that we are stepping beyond socialism and heading toward fascism.

* Sean Hannity met with Sarah Palin in a wooded area for a heart-to-heart and suggested -- and she agreed -- that Obama was leading the country toward certain socialism. Hannity has in the past crowned Obama the "Commissar in Chief," renamed America the "United States of France," and claimed that, "America is moving from a free-market economy to a Socialist economy." On the eve of the infamous tea parties, he asked Newt Gingrich: "Is this now a battle between capitalism and socialism?" In case you were wondering, Newt didn't say no, but recently, Hannity answered his own question, declaring that "the Bolsheviks have finally arrived!" He also praised congressional Republicans for finally using "the S-word."

Branding the United States of America as the newest socialist republic is not just a job for mentally unbalanced and/or drug-and-alcohol addicted cable "news" hosts. The Republican National Committee also held a special session recently to try and rebrand the Democratic party as the Democratic Socialist Party. (It was narrowly defeated.)

What's more:

* Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) called the president's policies "a new American socialist experiment."

* Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-IA) -- both politician and madwoman combined -- said that "if you look at FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama, this is really the final leap towards socialism."

* Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) called Obama the "the world's best salesmen of socialism."

* Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said he believes the Obama administration is taking the country down the road to socialism.

* Newt Gingrich said Obama's agenda was the "boldest effort to create a European socialist model we have seen."

Well, you get the point...

The socialist scare tactic may appear to be just one more desperate grasp from a conservative opposition that -- let's face it -- hasn't got much going these days. But it is really a reprise of tried and true scare-tactics past.

We saw a bit of it just a few years ago when conservatives were in the majority in Congress. Former House majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) wrote that New Deal and the Great Society, on the one hand, and Soviet Russia's five-year plans and Communist China's Great Leap Forward, on the other, were created by "the same sort of person" separated only by differences of "power and nerve." Before that, Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) compared "liberals" to "scoundrels like Hitler," who were also "much like communists."

But we've been hearing this sort of thing for better part of three-quarters of a century now. Back in 1947, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce accused the Truman administration of taking a "backroad to socialism" in the fast lane toward a "police state."

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg notes that the tactic has been "part of the Republican lexicon for years and years. Any time the Democrats proposed any legislation on child labor, social security, the [conservatives] immediately cried socialism -- to the point where in 1952 Harry Truman said that when you hear someone saying 'down with socialism,' they really mean 'down with progress.'"

This is working to some degree. Lawrence O'Donnell has pointed out that only 6 percent of Americans used the word socialist to describe President Obama back in September 2008, but by April 2009 that number had grown to 20 percent. But like most everything -- particularly given the collapse of the Soviet Union and Chinese embrace of capitalism -- socialism as a scare tactic ain't what it used to be....

You can read the rest of Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory's analysis in their recent article, "Think Again: Chiller, Socialist Theater."

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.

This column was recently named as a finalist in the category of "Best Commentary -- Digital" for the Mirror Awards.