Aid and comfort without an enemy

Conservative attacks on Obama’s “socialism” reveal the Right’s frustration at trying to run a movement with only one enemy instead of two. The Right really misses its communist sympathizers.

Sara Posner astutely observes that attacks on Obama’s socialism may make little sense as a policy label or as mass strategy, but make a lot of sense as a conservative Movement code word. “Socialism” to this audience doesn’t really mean an economic policy: it means godless atheism, the opposite of a Christian regime based on virtue and faith.

In Women of the New Right, twenty years old but still useful, Rebecca Klatch noted the role this trope played in cementing the conservative coalition: socialism and big government were one thing that unified libertarians and the religious Right. But communism was the other: and the absence of the latter is what makes the current campaign so strange.

Klatch found that libertarians and religious conservatives, if you explored their respective world views, agreed on almost nothing. On the level of rhetoric, though, they could agree both happily and durably on full-throated hatred of Big Government and Communism—though for reasons that didn’t cohere at all; the libertarians hated Big Government and Communism as the enemies of free individual choice; the religious Right hated them as the embodiment of secular choice in rebellion against God’s will. But the coalition worked well enough for a time, and most crucially managed to sell these enemies outside the movement. Big Government and Communism really were unpopular, and politicians like Reagan, by running against them, satisfied both the movement and the median voter. (Klatch didn’t stress race, but both anticommunism and anti-big government rhetoric obviously had racial resonance, especially in the South.)

We’re now seeing how this set of arguments works with one of the enemies–communism–removed. It’s a train wreck. Outside religious Right circles, accusations of socialism do sound like claims about an economic philosophy–and applied to Obama, they sound ridiculous. McCain’s hysterical attacks on government spending, including his odd conviction that a financial crisis is the same as a fiscal crisis, have no wider traction when detached from the conspiratorial, values-based critique on which hatred of Big Government once drew. Finally, the effort to link Obama with anti-Americanism runs into a slight problem: as Mark has often noted, practically nobody in this country (unlike during the early Cold War and the New Left era) has the slightest ideological sympathy with any threats America faces. Sure, those who think Obama a secret Muslim, and are bigoted enough to think all Muslims are terrorists, will buy the link. But other than that, McCain is left implying that Obama will sell us out to–who, exactly? The Weathermen? Howard Zinn? Ronald Radosh may have nightmares about Bill Ayers as Secretary of Education, teaching our kids Marxist subversion and hatred of the Boy Scouts, but these say more about a once-laudable writer’s own sad obsessions with the past than about Obama.

Whether or not Al Qaeda, or the ideological seas it swims in, should rightly be considered an existential foreign policy threat to the United States and its values and interests, almost nobody considers it a plausible domestic threat. And without one of those, the Christianists are simply at a loss, fighting demons that only they see.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.