Why Republican Cries of 'Socialism!' Won't Work

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks as he kicks off his 2020 presidential campaign at Navy Pier in Chicago. 

In his patented stepdad-telling-you-this-is-for-your-own-good style, Mike Pence came to warn the attendees at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference that their already boundless hatred for Democrats doesn't quite match the evil the opposition party now represents. "Under the guise of 'Medicare for All' and a 'Green New Deal,' Democrats are embracing the same tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and stifled the liberties of millions over the past century," Pence told them. "That system is socialism."

Meanwhile, a related narrative is taking hold in a media that finally got over its need to write the 10,000th "In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Still Support Trump," story full of breathless reports from Rust Belt diners where middle-aged white men gather to muse on the president's heroic efforts to defend the country from the immigrant horde. Now, the story is "Moderate Democrats Worry About Party's Move Left," (see here or here or here), in which reporters find said moderates to insist that all this talk of an ambitious liberal agenda is sure to result in disaster for their party.

Once again, we're about to find the GOP and the media in agreement: that socialism is bad, that the Democratic Party is moving too far and too fast to the left, and that Republican attacks on socialism will inevitably be effective, perhaps to the point of ensuring Donald Trump's re-election.

There are a lot of misconceptions and mistaken assumptions here, none more obvious than the idea that what Democrats are proposing has anything to do with whatever communist nightmare Mike Pence fears will lie in America's future. If universal health care is socialist, for instance, then ours is the only advanced democracy on earth that isn't socialist, since every other one of our peer countries has it (though the precise form varies, as do Democratic proposals). There's no question that the Democratic Party has moved to the left, but the vast majority of what most of its prominent politicians support now that they didn't a few years ago—universal health coverage, a $15 minimum wage, legalization of marijuana—is extremely popular.

Of course, saying "My god, our opponents want us to turn into Venezuela!" is a lot more ominous than "My god, our opponents want to turn us into Denmark!" which is far closer to the truth. But either way, it's important not to assume that because Republicans are lobbing an attack at Democrats then that attack must necessarily be working.

This is one of the dangers of those immersed in politics, whether it's journalists or political professionals: assuming that voters understand all this in the same way you do. But of course, they don't. They neither know or care as much about it, and among other things they don't have strong opinions about ideology.

Which is one of the reasons that if you're looking for a case where a presidential candidate lost mostly because they were too ideologically extreme, you'd have to go back almost half a century to George McGovern in 1972 (and even that one is debatable). That's not to say it couldn't possibly happen again, but there's an enormous weight of evidence suggesting that even as the parties move apart on issues, ideology has become less important for voters.

For instance, analyses of congressional elections show that while at one time being a moderate might have enabled you to poach voters from the other party and improve your chances of winning, those days are behind us; once you win your party's primary, you'll do equally well no matter what your ideological profile is. "It doesn't do you any good," Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz recently told me, "to position yourself in the center in hopes that that's going to attract more votes from the other party. It just doesn't seem to work."

That truth runs in contrast to the worldview most reporters bring to their coverage of campaigns, which says not only that ideology matters but that appealing to voters in the center is both strategically effective and a moral good. The truth, however, is that there just aren't that many voters in the center anymore. There may be people who tell pollsters that they're "independent," but the vast majority of them actually vote with one party or the other. We saw it in 2016: Hillary Clinton tried desperately to appeal to moderate Republicans, many of whom were sincerely repulsed by their party's nominee, but when the election came those moderate Republicans voted for Donald Trump anyway.

What matters is party, not ideology. Our party affiliation—built in large part on distaste for the other side—is an identity powerful enough that voting for the other party becomes unthinkable, even if we have reservations about our candidate.

Which leads to what may be the most important truth of contemporary American elections: Persuasion matters less and less, and mobilization matters more and more. It's nice to win over people who weren't going to vote for you, but what makes the difference is whether you got your people to the polls. The perfect election for your side is one where your voters are excited about your candidate and despise your opponent, and are thus highly motivated, while the other side's voters are indifferent to both of them.

It's possible that if Republicans cry "Socialism!" enough, their voters will be horrified enough to flock to the polls in numbers greater than they would have otherwise. It's a question worth investigating. But the last thing we should do is just assume it will work.

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