A specter is haunting the Republican Party, one partially of its own making. It’s the specter of socialism, and boy do Republicans feel threatened.
If we look at what Republicans are doing, it’s clear that they see a fight against socialism as the next phase in the great ideological war, despite the fact that this is a battle they thought they had won a long time ago.
Let’s look, for example, at a bizarre report that was just released by the Council of Economic Advisers. Ordinarily, the CEA is a relatively sleepy office full of trained economists whose job it is to give the president factual information he can use to make good economic decisions. But in Trump’s Washington, it seems that everything is poisoned by corruption or partisanship, which is why the CEA put out this propaganda piece titled “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” an attempt to argue that socialism is bad.
The report itself is a rather absurd collection of tendentious arguments roping together Marx, Lenin, Mao, contemporary Nordic countries and Bernie Sanders. If you would be horrified by the fact that higher taxes make owning a pickup truck in Finland more expensive than doing so in the United States, avert your eyes from Figure 6, though the best chart may be the one showing that seniors in the United States have shorter wait times to see a medical specialist than seniors in countries with those awful universal health systems, so obviously the free market in health insurance is superior. If you realized the flaw in that argument — American seniors enjoy a universal, single-payer insurance system called Medicare — give yourself a gold star.
So why is it that Medicare is not socialism, but Medicare-for-all would be socialism, and therefore horrific? The answer to that question tells us a lot about what politics are going to look like for the next few years.
That they have to even talk about socialism is probably a source of great irritation for conservatives. Didn’t they win this argument when the Berlin Wall fell? But the truth is that it is mostly their own fault. They’ve spent decades greeting even the most mainstream center-left policies with cries of “This is socialism!” to the point that after a while, many Americans — particularly young people — came to believe that socialism was itself something mainstream and reasonable. In some polls, young voters are more likely to express a favorable view of socialism than of capitalism.
That may also have something to do with the fact that the political figures who call themselves socialist today — most prominently Bernie Sanders, but also people such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — aren’t exactly calling for the means of production to be seized before Americans are all forced to stand in shapeless gray overcoats in line for bread. Instead, they essentially advocate a version of European social democracy, in which we still have a vigorous capitalist system, but one where government provides a more comprehensive structure of social supports and stronger oversight to deal with market failures.
So Republicans have gone from thinking that the key to success is just to slap the nefarious label of socialism on any Democratic policy they don’t like, to realizing that they’re going to have to argue against socialism itself. And how are they going to do it?
One colorful way is to claim that bad socialism is a threat to good socialism. In particular, that now appears to be the argument the right will use to fight against any attempt to implement a universal health program: Medicare-for-all is terrible because it is a threat to Medicare. In other words, we need to stop socialized medicine to protect socialized medicine.
Check out this ad from Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.), in which an elderly couple describes how important Medicare is to them, then charges that Bishop’s opponent’s “plan is to take most everything we have, and give it away. We paid into the system. Why would she want to take this away from us?”
For the record, Bishop’s opponent, Elissa Slotkin, favors an option to buy in to Medicare but hasn’t come out for Medicare-for-all. But truthful or not, you can see the strategic logic of the attack. Seniors love Medicare and can be scared into fearing they’ll lose it, even if all the Democrats want to do is expand its benefits to everyone. And they vote.
It would be foolhardy in the extreme for Democrats to assume that the logical shortcomings in the argument that Medicare-for-all is a threat to Medicare mean that it couldn’t be extremely effective. I would remind you that in 2009, 4 in 10 Americans believed the Affordable Care Act mandated “death panels” before which the elderly and disabled would literally have to beg for their lives to avoid having their treatment taken away.
It’s impossible to tell how the debate over Medicare-for-all will go, even if the idea is extremely popular with voters right now. But having helped socialism redefine itself in the American imagination, Republicans now realize they’re going to have to fight it all over again, and they’re obviously worried. They ought to be.