[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Today's "teabag" protests would be funny, if they didn't make me think of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and what he might have accomplished if Fox News existed during his time.
On February 9, 1950, McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, said to the Women's Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, "While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205."
McCarthy never released the names on the list, and there is no evidence that he had any real knowledge of any actual Communist Party members or spies in the State Department. But that didn't stop McCarthy from going on a four-year rampage, destroying people's careers and lives based on lies, innuendo and guilt by association. By the time Special Counsel for the Army Joseph Welch asked McCarthy during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations on March 11, 1954, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?", the country had started to figure out that McCarthy was nothing but a charlatan, using fear and lies for political gain.
In light of more than 50 years of lessons on the dangers of McCarthyism, you would think that such a tactic could never work again. That may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure: If the tools employed by McCarthy fail today, it won't be for a lack of trying by the Republicans. Because as we sit here, in April 2009, an increasingly desperate Republican party has resorted to the worst abuses of the fear mongering of the 1950s to try and regain power.
Last Thursday's statement by U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, that he had a list of 17 members of Congress who are socialists was not the beginning or end of the GOP efforts at launching an age of neo-McCarthyism, but the parallel is too direct to ignore. Bachus said, "Some of the men and women I work with in Congress are socialists." When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the one person in the U.S. Congress who identifies himself as a "democratic socialist," demanded that Bachus reveal those on his magic list of 17 socialists, Bachus declined to name any names beside Sanders. Sound familiar?
(As an aside, Sanders's use of "socialist" to describe himself is, I would argue, more to make a point than an accurate portrayal of his political positions. He caucuses peacefully with the Democrats, and, as Politico put it, Sanders's "vision of a socialist safety net is more Stockholm than Stalingrad.")
The socialism charges started during the campaign, with John McCain invoking the word in reference to then-candidate Barack Obama. The nadir came when nut-job extraordinaire Michele Bachmann, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota, said on Hardball: "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they pro-America or Anti-America" (You can watch it for yourself here). It was like she was channeling McCarthy.
But with Obama's victory in November, rather than dissipating, the socialism charges kept right on humming along.
Which brings us to the ridiculous "teabag" protests today. I have no trouble using the word "ridiculous" because we have a group of people invoking one of the most famous revolts against taxation, the Boston Tea Party, a 1773 action against England taxing tea without the colonists having voted on it, to protest an administration that has ... cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, and supported restoring tax rates for the wealthiest Americans back to the levels of the Clinton administration, which were significantly lower than the tax rates for the wealthy under Ronald Reagan (not exactly known as a socialist). And, of course, there is no taxation without representation here. The Republicans are represented. They just lost, overwhelmingly, in the last election. There is a big difference.
Let's be clear about something: It seems almost silly I should have to write this, but President Obama is not a socialist, at least not by any excepted definition of the term. To be incredibly simple about it, Dictionary.com defines "socialism" as "a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole." The president's policies may not show the deference to business and the financial industry that the Bush administration employed (and the complete abdication of regulation, too), much to the dismay of conservatives, but it is ludicrous to say that his policies rise to the level of advocating for "vesting control" of the economy "in the community as a whole."
When Bachus and the rest use the word "socialism" to describe President Obama (or any Democrat in Congress), they are either ignorant or lying. They are certainly not acting in good faith or in the best interests of the country. They are quite simply playing political games.
What's worse, the protests are being portrayed as "grassroots" affairs by the right, even though they are being launched by three conservative groups (funded by wealthy Republican donors): Former Rep. Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, dontGO and Americans for Prosperity.
Like McCarthy's nonexistent list of Communists in the State Department (and Bachus's equally fictional list of socialists in Congress), the "teabag" protests are a sham.
Given poll numbers that show that Americans overwhelmingly support President Obama and his tax proposals (according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, 56 percent of respondents said they supported President Obama's handling of the economy, and 74 percent supported higher taxes on the wealthy), the whole "teabag" protest would, taken alone, be nothing more than entertainment, another item on an increasingly long list of moves by the Republicans that show they are bankrupt of ideas, offering only more tax cuts and less regulation as a solution to everything. But one factor threatens to make the protests (and the whole bogus movement to brand President Obama a socialist) actually dangerous: Fox News.
Last night, Keith Olbermann showed a montage of Fox News clips promoting the "teabag" protests. If McCarthy had the portal of Fox News to spew his hate and lies into American living rooms, who knows how the 1950s would have unfolded. One would hope that the nation still would have come to its senses, recognizing McCarthy as the know-nothing fear monger that he was, but we can't say that for sure.
Which is why I am a bit concerned about the neo-McCarthyism embraced by Fox News and the Spencer Bachuses and Michele Bachmanns of the world. We live in a time with a lot of problems, from war abroad to a difficult economy at home. Fear is easy enough to generate in an already scared populace, but it is even easier to stoke in an age of 24-hour news cycles and propaganda machines masquerading as news networks (before my friends on the right try to throw MSNBC in my face, suffice it to say that Fox News regularly read White House talking points on the air when Bush was president, something that Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and even uber-fan Chris Matthews could not be accused of doing). I am concerned that the neo-McCarthyism advanced by the GOP will prey on a country that is, unfortunately, vulnerable, and somehow take on an air of respectability.
And that is why I decided to write about the bogus "teabag" protests. Because as silly as they are, they are also dangerous. We know what the Republicans got away with during the Bush administration, and we have seen the toxic waste that former administration officials like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have upchucked onto the airwaves since President Obama was sworn in.
So don't just laugh at the idiots out there today throwing tea to protest nonexistent tax increases and holding signs accusing President Obama of being a socialist. Be sure to speak up and let anyone you talk to know that what these protests signify is a dangerous attempt to establish a new era of McCarthyism. The actions of the protesters might be silly, but there is nothing insignificant about what the people pulling their strings are trying to do.
It's time for a 21st century version of Joseph Welch to stand up to the neo-McCarthyites, hopefully before they do the kind of damage McCarthy did to innocent people in the 1950s.