The Republican Party’s surprising socialist connection – Gainesville Sun

Posted: September 24, 2021 at 10:35 am

Michael Stephens| Guest columnist

If you've spent any time on or observing the political right in America, you probably know that just about the dirtiest thing we Republicans can say aboutsomeone is to call that person a socialist.

The slanderous epithet of "communist" doesn't work too well anymore, because everyone knows that real communism the stuff of Marx, Lenin andMao has vanished from the earth so completely that there are more stuffed dodo birds sitting in museums than there are true communists on the loose.

Socialism, on the other hand, is alive and well and open to competing definition by friends and enemies alike. Suffice it to say that democratic socialism(undemocratic socialism being largely limited today to a few temporarily disaffected children of multimillionaires having some fun playing revolutionary atuniversity) entails a comprehensive social welfare state combined with a great deal of government direction in the economy, all of it planned by freelyelected not to say competent officials.

Social democracy welcomes the welfare state but shuns government planning of the economy, reasoning that if you want to tax the rich heavily, theyactually have to be rich, something bureaucratic meddling tends not to encourage.

To modern orthodox Republicans, all this social this-and-that is just socialism, plain and simple, and socialism rhymes with communism.

The Republican Party in the first half of the 20th century was far different from the economic libertarianism idealized by most of its leaders today.

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Theodore Roosevelt challenged the hegemony of big business during his 1901-1909 presidency, creating a new economically interventionist conservatism, Progressivism. Wendell Willkie,the1940 Republican presidential candidate,took Progressive ideals to their furthest when he ran to the left of FranklinRoosevelton both economic policy and certain social issues, including desegregation.

But perhaps the most unusual distinction involved a Republican not commonly thought of as a Progressive: President Warren Harding (1921-23).

Harding was certainly no socialist. He wasn't even a social democrat. When confronting a particularly thorny tax reform proposal, he confessed, "I can'tmake a thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side, and they seem right, and then I talk to the other side, and they seem just as right."

Today that would be modesty unbecoming a president. Harding had the rare courage to express the frustration ofnonspecialistleaders down throughthe ages. And eventually he did what good leaders do: He crafted a compromise.

Harding's idealism lay in an uncommon concern for fairness, including toward those whose ideas differed radically from his own. He had long beenowner and editor of a newspaper in the small town of Marion, Ohio, and perhaps it was the need to regularly consider the opinions and feelings of ordinarypeople as people rather than as members of voting blocs that made him more tolerant than most politicians.

The opportunity for an encounter between political worlds came in 1921. In his enthusiasm to make every American a supporter of our involvement inWorld War I, President Woodrow Wilson had in 1918 locked up practically anyone who spoke out against it. That included Socialist Party leader EugeneDebs, who had coincidentally taken an embarrassinglylarge number of votes from Wilson in the 1912 presidential election. Peace came, but Wilson leftDebs in prison.

Debs might have died in prison, but when Harding became president, he not only freed Debs but invited him to the White House. We don't knowwhat theytalked about. They likely discussed economics, on which they differed widely, although both had a real concern for the common people. They mayalsohave discussed civil rights for Black Americans, something Harding and Debs were both pioneers in championing.

Interestingly, Debs was not Harding's only link to American socialism. Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate for president in every electionfrom1928 to 1948, grew up in, of all places, little Marion, Ohio. As a teenager Thomas worked for Harding's newspaper.

How much the small-town pragmatism of Harding may have influenced Thomas is unclear, but in 1938 Leon Trotsky described Thomas sneeringly asa"drawing-room socialist" with no interest in collectivizing American farms or murdering the capitalist elite. Thomas, a Presbyterian minister before enteringpolitics, no doubt took this as a compliment.

Whenever partisan mudslinging seems particularly out of control, we should remember that crisp winter day a century ago when a pro-businessRepublicanpresident of the United States welcomed the persecuted icon of American democratic socialism for an honest chat, and did so in total disregardfor what the press or political opponents might say.

Would that our modern leaders had that sort of courage and humanity.

Michael Stephenslives in Gainesville.

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The Republican Party's surprising socialist connection - Gainesville Sun

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