“A specter is haunting Europe,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in 1848. “The specter of communism.”
A slightly different specter was haunting U.S. conservatives the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington at the end of February. The specter was socialism.
One speaker at the conference declared socialism “literally like heroin”: “For a little bit it's wonderful, but then the rest of your life is a living hell.” Another declared that socialists “want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” Your hamburgers? Well, yes, because flatulent cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
For three days, speaker after speaker dramatized the looming menace of socialism. And denounced one of its more prominent defenders, recently elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as a threat to the republic. Former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka described Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal proposal as “a watermelon — green on the outside, deep, deep red communist on the inside. What Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
President Donald Trump gave the signal to his supporters in his State of the Union address, when he said: “We are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country... We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Trump knows how to connect to his base. Republicans, Gallup reports, “are overwhelmingly negative about socialism.” They “tend to skew toward seeing socialism as government control of the economy.”
The 2020 election is supposed to be a referendum on Trump. Clearly, he and his conservative base, however, are trying to turn it into a referendum on socialism.
Yet a Gallup poll last year came up with a surprising finding: More Democrats have a positive view of socialism (57 percent) than they do of capitalism (47 percent). One reason for the shift is that what socialism means to Americans has changed.
For one thing, Democrats are more likely to see socialism as promoting equality, and inequality has become one of the hottest political topics. The economy may be doing well, but Americans are painfully aware that most of the gains are going to those at the top. So while “socialism” is still a tough sell (among all Americans, only 37 percent had a positive view of socialism in 2018), a lot of policies that smack of “socialism” have strong public support. These include Medicare for Alland raising taxes on the wealthy, policies that only a few years ago were considered radical.
A Green New Deal that would end U.S. dependence on carbon-based energy? More than 80 percent of voters like the idea, including 64 percent of Republicans. Despite the fact that two-thirds believe that a Green New Deal is a “largely socialist” policy.
The Cold War ended almost 30 years ago, so conservatives are aiming to replace the communist threat with the socialist threat. But it was far easier to depict communism as a menace: The Soviet Union was a nuclear power that directly threatened the United States and the rest of the free world.
Communism was often labeled “atheistic communism.” The United States is the most religious advanced industrial country in the world. The nation was originally settled by groups like the Puritans, who came here seeking religious freedom. In 2016, a majority of Americans (51 percent) said they would be less likely to support a candidate for president “who does not believe in God.” That was higher than the 42 percent who said they would not support a Muslim candidate.
Communism was also explicitly undemocratic (“the dictatorship of the proletariat”). But politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders push socialist policies while calling themselves “democratic socialists.” The idea is that expanding the power of the state is just fine as long as government is democratically controlled. Something that is not true in Cuba or Venezuela.
Socialism, like communism, means big government. Opposition to big government is a bedrock principle of American conservatism. I once heard a speaker at a business conference in the 1970s describe the Soviet Union as “a big OSHA with nuclear weapons.” (To many businesspeople, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration epitomizes the menace of big government — imposing costly and burdensome regulations on private workplaces.)
But times are changing.
Back in 1949, as the Iron Curtain descended, when Americans were asked what they understood by “socialism,” the top answer (34 percent) was government ownership and control. That percentage has dropped by half, to 17 percent. In 2018, the top answer was “equality” — which nearly doubled from 12 percent in 1949 to 23 percent last year.
Republicans who think Medicare for All, taxing the rich and a Green New Deal are “dead on arrival” might be in for a surprise. Even if the president denounces them as “socialist.”
Let Trump rant about socialism. Democrats can talk about an agenda to promote equality.
Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His new book, "Standoff: How American Became Ungovernable," was published by Simon & Schuster in May of 2018
This article was first published on NBC News' Think.