At a dinner in his New Jersey home to which John O’Sullivan and I had both been invited, former president Richard Nixon posed the question: “What is politics?”
My response was “friend-enemy relations.” “No,” said O’Sullivan. “It’s about finding themes for an electoral campaign.” Our differing answers reflected a difference in backgrounds: I had just published a book on the very dark German political theorist Carl Schmitt and was a great fan of Thomas Hobbes; O’Sullivan had been a campaign advisor to Margaret Thatcher before going on to become National Review’s chief editor.
Of course, both of us were right. Political life in Western countries is about the organization of electoral campaigns, in which one side depicts the other as the Devil. Typically the ideological confrontations are not as substantive as they’re made to appear; the ritualized battles are waged over issues that politicians and their donors want to talk about.
I thought about this conversation while recently listening to political talking points, namely the babble coming from our Republicans and from Emmanuel Macron and his centrist coalition in France about a looming “socialist” danger. In neither country is this claim persuasive. I’m not denying that the Left isn’t demanding lots of “free stuff,” including free college education in the U.S., even for those who have neither the interest nor the inclination to engage in serious academic studies. Young people who hang around universities also want to restructure the economy around various “green deals,” such as the plan recently trotted out by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her Green New Deal scheme would be incredibly costly and in any case would have only minimal effect on the environment. But the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden, doesn’t seem too eager to sign on to a radical ecological proposal anyway (though he does advocate a $1.7 trillion “clean energy” plan).
Simply put, what these “socialists” want is certainly not what exists in Venezuela, China, or Cuba. None of our Democratic presidential candidates are trying to establish economies that are similarly nationalized. A Democratic administration would likely slow down economic growth and impose more PC requirements on the commercial sector. But this would hardly make us Castro’s Cuba or the former German Democratic Republic. Someone who was once a true socialist is Bernie Sanders, but even Bernie is now pushing mostly the “free stuff,” together with “intersectional politics.”
Having socialized medicine may be a good or bad thing (I personally abhor it), but as I’ve argued before, advocating for it doesn’t make one a socialist. Countries that even our Republican think tanks consider to be “capitalist,” like Canada, Germany, and Britain, all have single-payer medical systems.
Moreover, major corporate interests are backing our political Left and don’t seem concerned that the culturally leftist Democratic presidential hopefuls plan to inflict socialism on the hand that feeds. Procter and Gamble, Citibank, Coca Cola, Gillette, and Silicon Valley lavish gifts on Democrats, while pushing LGBT, gutting the Second Amendment, expanding abortion rights, and trying to weaken national borders.
I’m sure these corporate titans aren’t interested in having the state seize their holdings and redistribute their profits. They are backing the Left because the real ideological cleavage in our society doesn’t run in any case between capitalists and socialists. Rather, it lies, as Steve Bannon recently pointed out in the French monthly L’incorrect, between globalists and “those who value their nations and civilization.”
The center-right in Western countries has rightly or wrongly decided that it can’t win elections by designating the real Leftist enemy for what they are—globalists who want to push their social values on everyone else. So they instead attack their adversaries as “socialists,” or what Macron denounces as “les socialo-communistes.”
Over the decades, Western countries have moved sharply to the Left on social issues. For example, even our supposedly ultra-rightist president is now seen posing beneath an LGBT rainbow flag and expressing his commitment to promoting gay rights everywhere. And though Mayor Pete may dispute the intensity of Trump’s enthusiasm for gay marriage, Trump himself has told us in no uncertain terms that he finds an institution that most Americans vehemently opposed 20 years ago to be “absolutely fine.” Significantly, most young Republicans are fervently in favor of gay marriage.
On immigration and abortion, the goalposts have also moved leftward—at least in national electoral campaigns. The GOP is now officially against late-term abortion or killing newly born infants, but some states are seeking to prohibit abortions at an earlier point in pregnancy. Republican operatives call for controlling illegal immigration but avoid talking explicitly about reducing immigration.
In view of what is perceived as the declining utility of highlighting “Judeo-Christian values,” the RNC will in all likelihood run against that golden oldie: “socialism.” It may also bring back such ideas as being for the individual against the state and (better yet) “getting government off our backs.” In France, it’s also “déjà vu all over again.” There the globalists are railing against the ghost of the French Communists, who once collected a quarter of the national vote. But Macron’s major opponents are now on the nationalist Right and on the multicultural globalist Left, represented by the Greens—not real socialists.
Both the French president and the GOP need to find timelier and more honest rhetoric, or else risk losing more elections and partisan support. The socialist bugaboo has a limited shelf life, which may expire far sooner than its critics realize.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.