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What do Emmer and the NRCC mean by ‘socialism’?

Press release after press release from the Emmer-led NRCC refers to the other party as the “Socialist Democrats.” Socialist, socialist, socialist. It’s blatant and shameless.

Rep. Tom Emmer, President Donald Trump
Rep. Tom Emmer shown speaking to President Donald Trump during a 2018 visit to Minnesota.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

Venezuela. Socialized education. Tom Emmer. National Republican Congressional Committee. Red-baiting/McCarthyism. Suburban swing voters. The fate of the earth. Hold those thoughts for a second while I try to make the connections.

Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota’s Sixth District has always struck me as a nice, smart, politically talented guy when we have crossed paths. Friendly, conservative but not crazy-right (especially compared to his immediate predecessor, Michele Bachmann). I usually see him at MinnRoast and he’s affable and is able to convince me he knows who I am, so much so that I thought he might give me an interview, but he apparently won’t.

Emmer is the current chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the political arm of the national party’s campaign for seats in the U.S. House. The job came to him after last year’s disastrous rout of House Republicans, a loss of 42 seats, which cost the Repubs their majority. The current makeup of the House is 235 Democrats to 197 Republicans, with a couple of vacancies pending special elections. Emmer was chosen to reverse that huge 2018 setback. It’s a big job.

Under Emmer (I can’t say if this was the case previously), the NRCC has adopted a strategy of red-baiting, bordering on McCarthyism, as a staple of its messaging, which I reasonably take to be a linchpin of its strategy to retake the House. For the youngsters, McCarthyism refers to the tactics practiced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s, which led to his censure by the Senate and to the term “McCarthyism” becoming a synonym for despicable red-baiting.

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Press release after press release from the Emmer-led NRCC refers to the other party as the “Socialist Democrats.” Socialist, socialist, socialist. It’s blatant and shameless. I could give you 100 examples, and they keep coming like boilerplate. I’m not sure I’ve seen a recent case where they used the word “Democrat” not modified by “Socialist.” 

This included smearing 29 different Democrats hit with the S-word during a single 30-minute e-mail storm that I wrote about here when the NRCC was defending President Trump against the allegation that he was a tad racist. Very subtle effort to change the subject from racism to socialism. Very mature. And so substantive that the exact same charge was leveled at 29 Democrats. Click through that link above to see how it worked.

What constitutes the line between what Americans have long called “liberalism” and full-on “socialism” may be a complicated subject. You could call Social Security “socialism” if you wanted to (it even has “social” in its name). On the theory that taxing me to pay for something I may not want is socialism, are Republicans proposing to make participation in Social Security voluntary? That would be the “freedom” thing to do. (Pardon my snark.)

You could call Medicare “socialized medicine for the elderly,” and Medicaid “socialized medicine for the poor.” You could call minimum wage laws “socialism.” After all, if I am willing to do a job for which an employer wants to pay $1 an hour, why should the socialists say we can’t make that deal? You could say that about almost anything the government “makes” you do, but especially if it costs you tax dollars. It’s a “freedom” thing, especially where dollars are involved.

I’m not calling Emmer personally despicable. Before doing so, I would want to discuss the enormous increase in the NRCC’s use of the “S-word” in its communications under his leadership, to ask him if he agreed with it, how he defines socialism, etc. I asked for an interview, but couldn’t get one, nor any explanation of why not. 

But when I told the NRCC press people I was going to write a piece about it and say that I couldn’t even get Emmer to say what he meant by “socialism,” they sent me a recent video. In it, Emmer was asked by a national reporter, how, for purposes of NRCC communications attacking the “socialist Democrats,” he was defining the word “socialism.” He replied, leading with the V-word as a short summary:

Emmer: “Venezuela. I mean, it is a complete government takeover. Literally, it’s theft. Socialism is theft. You name your issue. It’s restriction of free speech.

“It’s restriction of your right to choose your own health care options. It’s restriction of your education options. Take your pick. Socialism is the government is going to make those decisions. Not you.

“You’re not satisfied with (that answer),” he said, apparently reading that the reporters were not satisfied), and he continued: “I’ll just say this: 

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“They [presumably meaning Democrats] use the term. They’ve offered the Green New Deal. That’s socialism. That destroys the free market economy. They’ve proposed socialized medicine, which further messes up health care, which has already been totally destroyed by the Affordable Care Act.

“I can give you examples, but I take it that you’d rather have me give you a definition that you can feed back to me. [Huh?] But I think that people know what socialism is, and they don’t like it. Look at the polling. It’s almost 60 percent in the handful of districts that we’ve targeted, primarily suburban districts. They have an unfavorable view of ‘socialism.’”

To me, this justifies my use, above, of the phrase “red-baiting bordering on McCarthyism.” Let’s unpack it a bit.

The first word of Emmer’s definition was “Venezuela.” Venezuela is in terrible shape. It got relatively rich, for Latin America, because it has a lot of oil. The price of oil has come down, and so has the Venezuelan economy. The current dictator calls himself a “socialist.” It’s a mess. Is this a point for Emmer? Are there any nations of Latin America that Emmer thinks should be a model for America? Most of them are considered capitalist nations. Is there any chance he picks on Venezuela as the definition of socialism because it is in chaos? Just asking.

Sweden, Norway and Finland are often called “socialist” models. They use the term to refer to their own systems, which include plenty of free enterprise and prosperous companies. They are also solidly in the camp of democracy. Life there is very good, better, by many objective measures, than in the USA. Is that because they’re “socialist”? Or because Scandinavians are hard workers? Or some other reason? 

If you wanted to have an honest discussion, you would deal with all of those cases, and others. If you just wanted to scare Americans, you would say that Venezuela is hell because “socialism” is hell, while Sweden is heaven because Swedes are just good people, even if they don’t love “freedom” like we do. (By the way, a lot of Swedes are good people.)

“Socialism is theft. Literally it’s theft” is bizarre, unless he explains what he means. I’m guessing it’s about taxes. Taxes are mandatory. They are used to pay for government programs. If you would rather not pay them because you don’t like how the government is using your tax dollars, you don’t get to keep your money unless you find a good offshore tax haven. Other than that, I would like to ask Emmer how “socialism is theft,” unless he means taxation should be strictly voluntary or follow the old ditty: “Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax that guy behind the tree.”

The fact, which Emmer cites, that a large portion of Americans will say they don’t like “socialism” explains why Emmer and the NRCC want to attach the term to everything that Democrats favor, very little of which the Democrats call “socialism.” 

What if Democrats start referring to the Republicans as “fascists?” That’s a very, very nasty word.  It doesn’t mean anything very specific to most of us, but has the Hitler/Mussolini stink on it, and some of that same stink comes from Donald Trump occasionally, according to who’s doing the sniffing. How would our political culture fare if our discourse offered us a choice between fascism and socialism, even in those suburban districts?

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Governments collect taxes and provide services. How to strike the right balance between those two has long been the essence of the liberal/conservative divide (except on military spending. where they switch sides).

To me, that’s not evidence of which side has the better priorities. To me, that’s evidence that, rather than discussing the costs and benefits of various suggested laws that would increase taxes to pay for things like greater access to health care for those who lack it, Emmer prefers to assign to those policies a word that he knows polls poorly in the suburban districts that he is “targeting.”

Like President Trump, when ginning up the anger of the base, Emmer likes to emphasize the four young female Democrats sometimes called “The Squad:” Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. He talked about them at the videoed press conference, and he was asked whether he was trying to “portray them as the face of the Democratic Party.” He replied, earnestly:

“We’re not trying to portray them as anything. They’re the ones who say what they are, and what they’re doing. They’re the ones that came in and said ‘we are socialists.’ Now, there’s a group that wants to say, ‘that’s just a few voices in our conference, and they’re oversized” (I assume he meant “overemphasized”). 

He said, speaking perhaps of the Squad, or perhaps of a larger group, perhaps of anyone who wants more Americans to have health insurance, perhaps of all 240 Democrats who voted for Pelosi as speaker, you decide:

“It’s a Red Army. It’s not a ‘squad.’ They’re an army of socialists. You have well over a hundred members who are signed onto socialized health care. You have well over 70 members that are signed onto the Green New Deal, and the list goes on and on. You can try to play the typical political game of, ‘Well, they stand for that, but I don’t agree with it.’ Look, you said you weren’t going to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker. You did. You said you weren’t going to do all these things that now you’re doing. You refuse to stand up and speak out against anti-Semitism. You refuse to stand up against the government takeover of private enterprise. You own it.”

If you read that over carefully, you’ll get a little dizzy and you won’t be able to tell, when Emmer calls people “socialists,” who, exactly, he was including: those who call themselves socialists, the  four “squad” members, all those who voted for Pelosi for speaker, or what. Seems to me he suspects them all of “Red Army” membership.

Since I wasn’t able to get an interview with Emmer, I got into an email exchange with Chris Pack, the spokesman for the NRCC who sent me the video. I asked him who is included in the list of “socialists.”

He sent me two bills; one was a “Medicare for All” bill, and the other was a version of the “Green New Deal.” (One  has 118 co-sponsors, the other has 95, but there’s a lot of overlap). I pointed out that very, very few of those members (two, as far as I can tell) called themselves “socialists.” He basically said that didn’t matter, that anyone who supports either of those bills is a socialist. Emmer didn’t say it, but I would say it is consistent with the message Emmer’s comments sent, that many Democrats can and should be considered “socialists.”

For the record, as far as I could ascertain, only two House members, AOC and Tlaib, belong to the Democratic Socialists of America. Pack believes there are well over 100 who can be labeled as “socialists” for supporting a bill that doesn’t mention socialism but could be said to introduce “socialized” medicine in the guise of “Medicare for all.”