by Heather Cox Richardson
History of Republican's use of socialism as a rallying cry -- hint -- it began way before Cubans, Venezuelans and others use it to disparage Democrats.
What Republicans mean when they say “socialism” is not the political system most countries recognize when they use that word: one in which the people, through their government, own the means of production. What Republicans mean comes from America’s peculiar history after the Civil War, when new national taxation coincided with the expansion of voting to include Black men.
After the Civil War, the same men who had vowed that Black people would never be equal to whites began to say that their objection to Black voting was not based on race. No, they said, their objection was that Black people were poor and uneducated and would elect lawmakers who promised to give them things—hospitals, and roads, and schools—that could be paid for only through tax levies on people with property: white men. In this formulation, voting was not a means to ensuring equality; it was a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white men to African Americans who wanted a handout. Black voting meant “socialism,” and it would destroy America.
As early as 1937, Republican businessmen and southern Democrats began to talk of coming together to stop what they considered socialism. But most Americans liked this New Deal, and its opponents had little hope of attracting enough voters to stop its expansion.
With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that argument increasingly fed the idea that Black and Brown people were lazy and wanted to receive government handouts rather than work. Businessmen and social traditionalists eager to get rid of the popular New Deal government told voters that government programs to help ordinary Americans were “socialism,” redistributing money from hardworking white people to lazy people of color. They talked of “makers” and “takers.”
To purge the nation of socialism, then, and return it to the pre–New Deal government, they set out to limit voting. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation that has designed much of the legislation currently being passed in Republican-dominated states, said “I don’t want everybody to vote….our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
By 1986, Republicans were talking about cutting down on Black voters through “ballot integrity” drives. As Democrats sought to expand voting, most notably with the 1993 Motor Voter Act, Republicans began to charge that they were losing elections only because of voter fraud, although experts agree that voter fraud is exceedingly rare and does not change election outcomes. Since then, arguing that they are simply protecting the vote, Republicans have become dependent on ID laws and other voter suppression measures.
But by 2020, it was clear that the Republicans’ drive to slash the government back to its 1920 form, along with the racism and sexism that had become central to the party to pull voters to their standard, had become so unpopular that it was unlikely they could continue to win elections. And so, Republicans began to say that the United States is “not a democracy,” as Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted in October. “Democracy isn’t the objective,” he continued, “liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
With the election of Democrat Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with a Democratic Congress, the leadership of the Republican Party has taken the next step. They are rejecting the legitimacy of the election, doubling down on Trump’s Big Lie that he won. Claiming to want to combat “voter fraud,” they are backing bills across the country to suppress Democratic voting, making sure that no one but a Republican can win an election.
Just as white southerners argued after the Civil War, Republican leaders claim to be acting in the best interests of the nation. They are standing firm against “the radical Socialist Democrat agenda,” making sure that no wealthy person’s tax dollars go to schools or roads or social programs.
They are “saving” America, just as white supremacists “saved” the Jim Crow South.