Two political memes ran through the media this week: one from the right about President Obama being a socialist, and one from the left about Rush Limbaugh leading the Republicans. We asked Northwestern University Professor Andrew Koppelman, Politico reporter Ben Smith and Democratic strategist James Carville to weigh in.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On March 6th, on Air Force One, President Obama was asked by a New York Times reporter whether he was a socialist. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let's take a look at the budget. The answer would be no. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He went on to defend the fiscal responsibility of his budget. He didn't tackle the socialism question. The issue must have weighed on him though, because soon after he landed, he called up The Times. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, it was hard for me to believe you were entirely serious about that socialist question. REPORTER: Mm-hmm. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I do think it might be useful for me to point out that it wasn't under me that we started buying a whole bunch of shares of banks. It wasn't on my watch. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The pot, according to Obama, is calling the kettle pink. BOB GARFIELD: The socialist charge has been used in reference to Obama’s tax policy, his handling of the banking crisis, his stimulus package and his budget proposal. But it first gained attention on the campaign trail. FOX NEWS HOST: An Ohio plumber asked Senator Barack Obama why he wants to hike his taxes if he believes in the American dream. Did Senator Obama answer him and win him over? On the phone now is Joe Wurzelbacher. Joe, did he win you over? JOE WURZELBACHER: No, not at all. He said he wants to distribute wealth. And, I mean, and I'm not trying to make statements here but, I mean, that’s kind of a socialist viewpoint. BOB GARFIELD: The “S” word popped up again in recent weeks amid rumors of a program for nationalizing the nation’s banks. Republican Senators Jim DeMint and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee invoked it. So did right-wing bloviator Glenn Beck. GLENN BECK: Hey, has anybody noticed this crazy thing that we're on the road to socialism? I'm just saying, wow! BOB GARFIELD: Last month, Newsweek had a cover story titled We're All Socialists Now. And in two polls in January, FOX News found that 50 percent of Americans feel the country is drifting towards socialism, and 65 percent believe that’s a bad thing. When words percolate up through the media, we like to put them through the OTM extruder for a segment we call “Word Watch,” although this week the phrase “Meme Watch” is probably more accurate. There have been two predominant political memes of late, one from the left, one from the right. We'll look at both. First, from the right, Obama is a socialist. Andrew Koppelman, professor of law and political science at Northwestern University, says that when we hear “socialist” invoked, we should ask ourselves a couple of questions. ANDREW KOPPELMAN: What does the label “socialism” stand for and what are the presuppositions when you use “socialism” as an epithet? If you use the label to describe Obama, I think what you are saying is there are two alternatives. Either the government intervenes in the market or it leaves it alone. BOB GARFIELD: So in any way whatsoever, does the President have socialist tendencies? ANDREW KOPPELMAN: Socialist generally means the belief that capitalism ought to be abolished and the state ought to run the means of production. If that’s the definition, Obama is absolutely not a socialist. BOB GARFIELD: But the President’s program, with its bank bailouts and its changing tax structure and his ideas for health care reform, are to the left of whatever it was we had before, no? ANDREW KOPPELMAN: That’s absolutely right. But in the 19th century, socialist movements split between people who wanted to abolish capitalism either through undemocratic means – that was Lenin, who wanted a little revolutionary vanguard to take over – or democratic socialists, who wanted to do it through the electoral process, and other people who – you saw this split particularly in the German Socialist Party around 1900 – who accepted capitalism, accepted that capitalism wasn't going to go away, and thought that what you wanted the state to do was intervene to moderate the failures and excesses of the market. The interesting thing that’s happened through the 20th century is that the social democrats have won. There are almost no states in the world now that want to leave the market absolutely alone. BOB GARFIELD: The fullest expression of the 19th-century social democrats, I suppose, is Northern Europe now. How much farther would President Obama have to go before we became Sweden? ANDREW KOPPELMAN: Well, you'd have to raise tax rates to 50 percent. You'd have to have a much more robust public sector than anything that Obama is contemplating. The government would provide a huge range of services that it doesn't provide now. BOB GARFIELD: In the '30s, when they called FDR a socialist, that meant, you know, creeping Leninism. That meant it was the avant-garde for Soviet Russia. Does the epithet have the same clout that it did in the '30s and the '40s, and maybe especially the '50s? ANDREW KOPPELMAN: Well, in the '30s, '40s and '50s, there was a serious concern that Leninism was going to take over the world. It certainly had those ambitions. And starting in the 1950s it had nuclear weapons, and so this was a big, scary force in the world. That’s not the case anymore. I don't think that socialism is what primarily scares most Americans. Most Americans are scared about losing their jobs. BOB GARFIELD: Andy, thank you so much. ANDREW KOPPELMAN: Very glad to be here, thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Koppelman is a professor of political science and the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, and contributor to the blog, Balkanization. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're joined by Ben Smith of Politico.com. The “Obama is a socialist” thing has become a meme, which is defined as a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes. So we called you [LAUGHS] because of another meme that’s been making the rounds, the one that goes, Rush Limbaugh is the head of the Republican Party. It’s been everywhere, both on liberal and conservative media, not to mention twice on this program. Recently, Politico.com offered an anatomy of this meme. It’s a great lesson in political strategy and media manipulation. Could you walk us through it? BEN SMITH: Sure. Well, I mean, first I'd say that’s maybe less a meme in the sense that it’s sort of organically transmitted in some kind of bio warfare or something like that. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, it’s certainly injected into the system. There had been polling last fall where Democratic pollsters outside the White House, outside the Obama campaign, noticed that Rush Limbaugh was not only just wildly unpopular with Democrats but also with Independents and with moderate Republicans and that, in fact, his negative ratings were worse than those of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who'd been like the main bogeyman of the entire presidential election cycle. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Bill Ayres. BEN SMITH: And Bill Ayres – [BOTH AT ONCE] - who I guess nobody had heard of [BROOKE LAUGHS], even despite the hammering. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So this was James Carville’s polling company. BEN SMITH: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he and fellow Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg tucked this information away and waited for what Paul Begala called a “tripwire” to let them use it to their advantage. What was that? BEN SMITH: Right. It was just in January. Limbaugh was talking about Obama and said that he hoped Obama failed. And now, I mean, I think, you know, in good faith you could say, well, you know, as a conservative he’s saying that he hopes Obama’s agenda to turn the country into a socialist megastate is going to fail, rather than he hopes America fails? But that’s certainly not how it sounded. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, in Politico.com your colleague, Jonathan Martin, wrote that initially the idea was to use Limbaugh’s remarks to get the Republicans to support the stimulus package. How was that supposed to work? BEN SMITH: Well, and basically these two give them a choice between being the party of sabotage [LAUGHS], you know, economic sabotage, and being the party of progress. And it was just - the idea was to trap them into either you’re with us or you’re with Limbaugh. That didn't work, though I think it did do something to tarnish their Republican brand. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then the question of whether radio host Rush Limbaugh is leader of the Republican Party takes off. They're talking about it on the left, on the right, in the mainstream media. Rahm Emanuel goes on Face the Nation and brings up Rush, unprompted. [CLIP]: RAHM EMANUEL: He is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: And White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs snarkily referred to the head of the RNC’s apology to Rush. [CLIP]: ROBERT GIBBS: I was a little surprised at the speed in which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was this as coordinated as it seems? BEN SMITH: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this was certainly being discussed kind of in the inner circle as a really effective club to use against Republicans. It was also, meanwhile, being discussed in these sort of new channels that the Democrats’ allies are using to organize themselves. There’s a 8:45 a.m. conference call every day between 20 or 30 kind of left-leaning groups. But you see groups like the League of Conservation Voters and environmental groups that you wouldn't necessarily expect to be talking about Rush Limbaugh start attacking skeptics of global warming by branding them with Rush Limbaugh. And so, there was this very kind of broad coordinated assault across the Party. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that had been going on for a couple of weeks, and then your colleague, Martin, figures out the meme has been intentionally cooked up by the Democrats. He writes the article. And then what happens? BEN SMITH: Well, then the Republicans finally sort of figure out what their pushback is going to be, which is to claim that – they say the Democrats are using this to distract from the economy, that Obama’s playing the kind of politics he promised not to. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems to be a bit meta for these times, don't you think? BEN SMITH: Given that the attack itself is already pretty – [OVERTALK] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. BEN SMITH: - meta, the conservative pushback is way too abstract, I think. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it might help if prominent Republicans stopped apologizing to Rush? BEN SMITH: Right. I mean, I think the reason it works is because it exposes the fact that the Republican Party, particularly the kind of reduced rump Republican Party in opposition, is dominated by conservative voices. And so, it’s a way to sort of push them into the arms of those voices and kind of hammer that connection. And those voices are not ultimately going to be appealing to the majority. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben, thank you very much. BEN SMITH: Thanks so much for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Smith is a reporter for Politico. James Carville is the political strategist and pollster who, with Paul Begala, seems to have got the ball rolling on this thing. It started with that pre-election poll that had Limbaugh’s popularity barely in double digits among people under 40, and then Limbaugh’s remark about wanting Obama to fail. But when we caught Carville on the phone, he said the real eureka moment came after that. JAMES CARVILLE: Well, the moment was this delicious thing of him going to CPAC – [OVERTALK] BROOKE GLADSTONE: CPAC, the conservative conclave. JAMES CARVILLE: Yeah, the - and bouncing up and down like a big bowl of Jell-O, of which the cameras couldn't get enough of. I mean, I'm delighted to be on radio and taking credit for this, but the real credit belongs to Rush, that here you have one of the most unpopular people in the world who all the Republicans are groveling to, and I think we both said, hey, let's – let’s shed some light on this. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it accomplish, at least for a time, what you wanted it to? JAMES CARVILLE: Well, it’s still accomplishing a lot. Every day he talks about this. He talks about how many people listen to his radio show. I wish everybody would listen to his radio show. [LAUGHS] I think people need to hear what he’s sayin’. BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last thing. Back in the '90s, when you were in the Clinton war room, news cycles were a lot slower. Has the ability to control messages or insert ideas into the media ether changed? JAMES CARVILLE: Oh, yeah. It’s - you know, you have the Internet thing. You've got the – you got, you know, a lot of cable channels. You got all of that, and stuff happens kind of instantly. But there’s nothing that drives a story better than a personality, and that’s what Rush is, and nobody can get enough of that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You got another personality waiting in the wings? JAMES CARVILLE: I don't know. I hope somebody comes along. But this is [LAUGHS], and this is good for Rush. It’s good for us. It’s just terrible if you’re a Republican congressman or somebody that cares about the Republican Party. But it - but I told somebody, look we're all having a party and Rush is there and you know what I mean, and [LAUGHS] when we leave, they're going to have to clean up the house. [LAUGHING] BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much. JAMES CARVILLE: Thank you, appreciate it.