Commentary: GOP's 'no' and 'socialism' scare tactics have been around since Truman

President Harry Truman in 1946
President Harry Truman in 1946 National Archives

In a world where little seems the same as yesterday and tomorrow is always uncertain, there are some constants. Even in politics, some things don't change.

A few lines from a fiery speech given by the President to a room full of fellow Democrats at a fund-raising dinner demonstrate this rather well. In trying to energize the party faithful, he laid into Republicans. He pointed to a Republican policy statement that claimed "the major domestic issue today is liberty against socialism" and that "basic American principles are threatened by the Administration's program." He dismissed such talk as nothing more than scare tactics that insult the intelligence of the American people.

The President also said Republican support for a tax cut was "political hypocrisy" and that the last tax reduction bill they passed was responsible for much of the government's financial difficulties. He asserted Republicans had no program of their own and that they just waited for the Democrats to make a proposal and then opposed it. He added that the charge of socialism was the same old moth-eaten scarecrow used to oppose every progressive step the nation had taken since 1933.

Finally, he compared Republicans to a cuttlefish "that squirts out a cloud of black ink whenever its slumber is disturbed." Cuttlefish? That would be tough talk for President Obama. The President who made these statements was Harry Truman and the year was 1950.

Sixty years later they still hold true. The opposition party has no program except opposition. Today it is as ready to sell out the common good to corporate interests and the wealthy as it was when it opposed the New Deal. And to ensure any progressive program is dismantled, Republicans, and their sock puppets on Fox News, are still dragging out that moth-eaten scarecrow and labeling anything they oppose as socialism.

In the 1950 congressional elections, the Democrats held on to their majorities in both houses of congress. Truman considered it a debacle nonetheless and was so depressed he got drunk the night the returns came in. He was right. Enough southern Democrats were elected along with the Republicans to make it impossible for him to do much in his remaining two years in office.

Southern Democrats were key to defeating Truman's agenda because they opposed progressive government programs more than moderate Republicans. Back then Republicans still belonged to the party of Lincoln and racists in the south preferred to be Democrats. When Adlai Stevenson, a liberal Democrat, ran against Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and moderate Republican, in 1952 and again four years later, Stevenson took nearly all the south and won no states outside it. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act a few years later, he turned to his aide, Bill Moyers, and said the Democrats had just lost the south for a generation. Strom Thurmond crossed the aisle and joined the Republican Party a few weeks later.

Johnson was optimistic. The Republicans have been successfully exploiting the race issue ever since. Nixon's southern strategy tapped into the anxiety of whites who felt threatened by affirmative action, women's liberation and equal rights. Ronald Reagan chose Philadelphia as the place to launch his campaign for president. Philadelphia, Mississippi that is — a town of a couple thousand where 16 years before three civil rights workers had been murdered. His speech focused on states' rights, thinly veiled code words for white supremacy.

And so it is today. The Republicans are the party of choice for the fearful. At least in Truman's time, as the Cold War heated up, Communism was a real threat. What is the current threat of socialism? That it would make fear less effective? In a recent survey, Newsweek magazine rated the best countries in the world to live. The United States did not even make the top ten, and most of those that did fall into the dreaded socialist category.

Socialism is not the only scarecrow Republicans currently have in their closet. They play on other fears like homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria. And, like Reagan's speech, these appeals have a heavy hint of racism.

Republicans know that hope can motivate voters only until the disappointment over a lack of instant gratification sets in. Fear, on the other hand, is a political gift that keeps on giving and never goes out of style. When their grip on the tactic seems to be slipping, they invent and manipulate front groups like the Tea Party to keep the fear alive.

And so, as countless pundits and pollsters predict a Republican landslide in the coming election, the only real question is how far off Truman's observation proves to be. Will the intelligence of the American voter be insulted — or, once again, greatly overestimated?


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."

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