THE BLOG
11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Anti-Communism Rhetoric Spreads Panic

With 8-days remaining, John McCain has intensified his effort to frame Barack Obama as a communist.  McCain's latest ad uses classic cold war arguments to spread fear that America's savings accounts 'under siege.'   While McCain continues to drop in the polls, but his anti-communist framing has left part of his base stricken with a fear reminiscent of Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds'--panic in the face of an invasion that is not happening. 

Building off his 'Joe the Plumber' campaign, John McCain is now pushing anti-Communism in his ads. In his latest campaign spot called 'Fight,' for example, McCain invokes cold-war rhetoric from critiques of communism, suggesting that unnamed forces and 'Washington' have already laid siege on the U.S. financial system:

Your savings, your job, and your financial security are under siege; Washington is making it worse, bankrupting us with their spending...saying we need to spread the wealth around  (link)

The basic logic, here,  may not be familiar to many people in the country.  But the idea that American liberals have been fomenting communist revolution for decades is a theme often pushed by right-wing pundits.  Best-selling right-wing books, such as Bill O'Reilly's Culture Warrior and Ann Coulter's Treason, repeatedly define American liberalism as a covert form of communism. 

Rather than directly accuse Barack Obama of communism, McCain has suggested that Obama's policies are 'socialist,' and used phrases that elicit in people's minds the discussions of liberals-as-communists from right-wing media.

The result has been a startling development on the campaign trail.  Suddenly, in the last weeks of the campaign, McCain's campaign has convinced a small minority of his followers that the supposed liberal-communist revolution talked about in right-wing media is suddenly on the verge of victory--that Barack Obama represents the culmination of a half-century communist revolution.   In expressing their support for McCain, these radicalized followers do not so much talk  about the virtues of the GOP candidate as they voice panic in the face of what they see as as a calamitous invasion. 

This week on NPR's Weekend Edition (Oct. 25, 2008), Ina Jaffe captured the sense of panic that McCain has created amongst his supporters.  In response to one questions as to why he was supporting McCain, a man named Robert Witt attending a campaign rally replied:

If McCain losses this election, we're headed into communism. Is that plain enough?

What the transcript does not capture is the sound of desperation in Witt's voice as he predicted the fall of the country to communism under Obama. 

While some election observers have critiqued these kinds of reactions as 'ignorance,' the panic in the voice of McCain supporters has more in common with panic in the voice of audiences egged on by early 20th-Century radio hoaxes, such as Orson Well's infamous 'The War of the Worlds' broadcast on October 30, 1938.

In that radio show, Wells used clever gimmicks to convince his listeners that the planet was being invaded by violent martians.  Subsequent analysis determined that listeners most convinced by the show--and stricken most by panic as a result--were those with the most one-dimensional media habits, in particular: households who received most of their news and information from listening to one source.

McCain followers panicked in the face of an immanent communist revolution in America are in a situation analogous to those households who believed martians were invading in 1938--receiving most their news and information from one or two narrow media sources.  The difference lies only in the technology and subject of the media.  In 1938, the dominant source was entertainment radio. In 2008, the dominant source is right-leaning partisan cable TV and radio.

Whatever the cause of the panic, one thing is certain: there is no communist revolution under way in America, and most certainly not within in the relatively neo-liberal economic policies of the Obama campaign. Nonetheless, the McCain campaign has resulted in widespread panic in voting districts whose media markets are dominated by right-leaning news providers.

While there is no danger of communism suddenly breaking out on the streets of America, whether or not  the panic incited by the McCain campaign will lead to social unrest remains to be seen.

(cross posted from Frameshop)