President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House. (Reuters)
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The collapse of Newsweek, which has lost key staffers and editors in a sort of rolling revolt against its owners, put me in mind of one of the last times a magazine cover became infamous. Nine years ago this week, Newsweek, then edited by Jon Meacham (and owned by The Washington Post company), ran a cover package under the headline “We Are All Socialists Now,” and to widespread surprise, it defined some of the terms of national political debate.

President Barack Obama had been in office for two weeks; the stimulus bill of 2009 would be signed into law less than two weeks later. Meacham, who co-wrote the cover essay with Evan Thomas, pivoted off an interview that Sean Hannity conducted with then-Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, in which Hannity called the stimulus the “European Socialist Act of 2009.” The s-word was meant to discredit the bill itself.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the political conversation, which shifts from time to time, has shifted anew, and for the foreseeable future Americans will be more engaged with questions about how to manage a mixed economy than about whether we should have one,” wrote Meacham and Thomas. “History has a sense of humor, for the man who laid the foundations for the world Obama now rules is George W. Bush, who moved to bail out the financial sector last autumn with $700 billion.”

As is usually the case with provocative headlines, the story got lost in the hype. On the right, Newsweek’s cover became evidence that the media, already seen as too flattering toward Obama, was trying to make socialism popular. What “socialism” was, in that framework, was loosely defined as whatever Obama wanted moved through Congress.

“Well, nobody has asked me,” said Glenn Beck on the Feb. 19 episode of his Fox News show. “I don’t want to be a socialist. If America decides to be socialist, then Americans should decide to be socialists, but that’s not what we’re doing. We’re not having a conversation. I haven’t seen actual socialists on television talking about how great socialism is.”

Jim DeMint, then a senator from South Carolina, waved a copy of the Newsweek cover during speeches. Democrats, confronted with questions about socialism, tended to defer.

“I don’t think anybody in this country believes in socialism,” said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) at one town hall meeting in 2010. “I don’t know ’em, and I don’t hang out with ’em, but maybe you do.”

After the GOP’s 2010 rout, the “We Are Socialists Now” cover endured as a symbol of what could have been. “It was this sense of America’s inevitable slide toward socialism that finally moved average citizens to organize into the Tea Party movement and became skeptical of both Republican and Democrat politicians,” Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli wrote in 2013.

According to Meacham, the people most agitated about the cover seemed to have missed the point.

“The allusion in the intentionally hyperbolic cover line was to Richard Nixon, who said, ‘We’re all Keynesians now,’ signaling a post-World War shift in the debate over the relative role of government in the economy,” Meacham said this week. “It was clear to us then — and remains so now — that 2008-2009 was another chapter in that story. It’s also important to remember that the piece was not at all only about Obama. Without the government’s direct intervention into the private economy under Bush 43, it’s difficult to say what would have happened. And one could argue that the Trump victory was in some measure a backlash against not only the Obama era but the Bush 43 years as well. The cover still comes up sometimes, usually from far-right sources who of course never read the piece itself.”

The panic over “socialism” in 2009 had another legacy — it cheapened the “s-word,” allowing actual socialists the space to advance their ideas at the end of Obama’s presidency. In 2015 and 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran for president as a “democratic socialist,” the label he’d given himself for decades. He won millions of votes, and his success coincided with — and probably steered — a surge of younger Americans saying they favored socialism. Christian Bowe, a member of the national political committee of Democratic Socialists of America, argued that the attacks on the “socialism” of Obama let real leftists carve out space for themselves.

“For the millennials now in the socialist movement, many of us voted for Obama not once but twice,” Bowe said. “In many ways, we could’ve been fended off from joining an explicitly anti-capitalist organization, whether it be the public option, EFCA or prosecuting bankers after the financial crisis. None of the formerly mentioned happened, and it’s given us a ton of space to maneuver after eight years of thinking Obama himself is a socialist. The hope and change of the Obama years and how it eventually slid into Trump has led many young people to wanting and fighting to change our economic system completely.”