04.11.09 7:02 AM ET
Maybe Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are right—socialism is a real and dire threat to America. The latest Rasmussen poll shows a stunningly low 53 percent of Americans favor capitalism over the dreaded "s" word, with a full 20 percent preferring socialism and an additonal 27 percent unsure.
Even in the current economic gloom, it’s an eye-opening result. But it’s worth asking whether the supposed socialist resurgence is really the work of President Barack Obama, who has been branded a socialist since the 2008 campaign, or the same right-wing talkers who have been shouting it over the airwaves.
It’s not at all surprising that when Rush Limbaugh (approval rating: 19 percent) lectures Americans about how Barack Obama is a socialist, well, people just might start deciding that they prefer socialism by default.
President Obama and the Democrats have bent themselves into policy pretzels to avoid any policy that gives off even a whiff of nationalizing banks or other companies. In one recent interview, Obama was so shocked to even receive a question about his free-market bona fides that he assumed the interviewer was joking. Only later did he call back to remind the reporter that he had inherited a bailout supported by both presidential candidates, as well as nationalized insurance companies, mortgage firms, and banks, and a huge increase in spending, all courtesy of his free-market predecessor in the White House.
Nor does socialism have anyone of note speaking on its behalf. The actual Socialist Party in America is small and inconsequential, and the only professed socialist in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, keeps a low profile on the national stage.
No, it’s increasingly clear that socialism’s newfound popularity comes from the Mitch McConnells, John Boehners, Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, and Glenn Becks of the world, whose repeated invocations of the term have pushed a previously DOA political movement to new heights of popularity.
The Rasmussen poll on socialism needs to be viewed in the context of the overall political environment. The Republican Party is both smaller and less liked than at any time in modern history. In the latest CBS/NYT poll, the GOP had a putrid 31 percent approval rating, its lowest ever recorded. President Obama was more than twice as popular in the same poll, with a robust 66 percent backing his performance. The GOP is also tinier than ever: Only 24 percent of respondents from one recent Pew poll identified as Republican, an astoundingly low number for a two-party country.
So it's not at all surprising that when Rush Limbaugh (approval rating: 19 percent), Sen. Mitch McConnell (approval rating: 23 percent), and Rep. John Boehner (approval rating: 18 percent) lecture Americans about how Barack Obama is a socialist, well, people just might start deciding that they prefer socialism by default. When politicians like Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) channel their inner Joe McCarthy and claim that some 17 members of the House are socialists, one would bet the collectivized farm that the congressional 17 are way more popular than the guy waving the list of them.
It’s a theory seconded by bona fide socialist activists. Marxist theorist Leo Panitch, a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, told The Daily Beast that while the recent Rasmussen poll was "pretty remarkable," he attributed the surge more to Obama's critics.
"It partly has to do with Obama being called a socialist and still being popular," Panitch said. "Therefore, since he's derided as a socialist by the right, and [because] people like Obama, and they don't know damn all about socialism, they come to the conclusion it may not be such a bad thing."
Nonetheless, Panitch said that he was heartened by the poll and other signs that people were at least open to a second look at socialism, which he said has yet to recover in America from the McCarthy Era of the 1940s and 1950s.
"Maybe people are feeling their way toward [socialism]," Panitch said.
The biggest danger to conservative values in America may be that Republicans are a walking "opposite day." What they praise becomes radioactive and what they decry quickly becomes the hot new thing. It's not just socialism that's gaining in the polls due to the GOP's cratering popularity. Many of the right's biggest fears are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies thanks to their backfiring attempts at activism. One recent poll, for example, showed a major increase in atheism and agnosticism, which have had their popularity numbers nearly double since 1990. It turns out that when incredibly unpopular politicians present elections as a false choice between god-fearing fundamentalists and godless heathens, people start thinking they just might not be so religious after all. And as for gay marriage, if conservative groups keep running ads like this one, gay marriage might become law all over the red states within months.
So, Rush, let's see if I can't broker a deal between you and the White House: Democrats will acknowledge the danger of creeping socialism. You, in turn, will agree to stop being its comrade in chief.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.