Atwater’s Explanation Still Applies

I believe it was Tallyrand who said “Man was given speech to disguise his thoughts, and words to disguise his eyes.” Had he been a contemporary American, he’d have been an enthusiastic Republican.

The late, legendary campaign consultant Lee Atwater once explained how Republicans won the vote of racists by manipulating language:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Nowadays, the economic linguistic game revolves around “socialism.” It took me a long time to realize that it’s the same game.

As an article in TNR noted,

to hear Republicans tell it, virtually everything government does is socialism; it is utterly foreign to the United States, and it cannot be implemented without imposing tyranny on the American people, along with poverty and deprivation such as we see today in Venezuela, where socialism allegedly destroyed the country.

It’s necessary to label and distort, to hide the real message, because many of the programs that trigger GOP hysteria over “socialism” are wildly popular: Medicare and Social Security come to mind. (Others are expected government services. As one friend noted on Facebook when it began to snow, “Look out for those socialist snowplows!”)

If GOP pundits and policymakers really wanted to discuss economics, rather than hide their actual motives, they would define their terms. They don’t, so allow me.

Socialism is generally what we call mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S. (Not as much higher as most think, actually)—Scandinavian countries are an example. The terminology tends to obscure the fact that most of those countries also maintain thriving private sector capitalist markets. 

Republicans misuse of the term also obscures the considerable amount of socialism enjoyed by wealthy Americans. A system that privatizes profits and socializes losses is hardly free-market capitalism. It’s socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor.

Socialism isn’t Communism. Communists believe that equality is defined by equal results. All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Socialism isn’t Fascism. Some of our dimmer policymakers like to say that Nazi Germany was “Socialist” because fascism was sometimes called “national Socialism,” however the two are very different. In fascist systems, the nation is elevated—a fervent nationalism (MAGA?) is central to fascist philosophy. Although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to insist upon traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

The biggest problem with turning words into epithets, or using them to veil our real meaning isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest; it’s because labeling and dismissing avoids the conversations we ought to be having.

For one thing, the use of economic language to obscure real motives has left the U.S. with the most dysfunctional–and expensive– delivery of health care in the developed world.

The basic question in any economic system is: what should government do, and what should be left to the private sector? Another way to put that is: what services should be supplied communally? We “socialize” police and fire protection, provision of most physical infrastructure, and numerous other services–parks, garbage collection, schools, those snow plows–because it is fairer, more efficient and/or more cost-effective to do so. Those decisions don’t turn us into Venezuela.

When you deconstruct it, the GOP opposition to programs they label “socialism” is explained perfectly by  Atwater’s admission. White Republican Americans are unwilling to have their taxes benefit “those people.”


  1. “When you deconstruct it, the GOP opposition to programs they label “socialism” is explained perfectly by Atwater’s admission. White Republican Americans are unwilling to have their taxes benefit “those people.”

    This is blatantly accomplished in GOP states in their education systems with the use of the “Voucher System” to reinstate segregation at its base. “Our children are our future!” was once a promise of better things to come; we are moving backwards to the days of “nigger” being acceptable and violence against entire groups of races is encouraged by the GOP. I’m waiting for Trump to drop the “N” word at his rallies and the “F Bomb” in his speeches to the nation before January 20, 2021, to replace defiling the term “Socialism” in any form.

    “White Republican Americans are unwilling to have their taxes benefit “those people.”

    The list of “those people” has increased to include entire races other than blacks and religions other than the GOP’s personal “evangelism” by the White Nationalist GOP. Segregation has returned to America with new victims of new unwritten Jim Crow laws to support it.

  2. I can’t think of any examples of countries that successfully implemented a single economic system. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “The basic question in any economic system is: what should government do, and what should be left to the private sector?” The problem is that those with the real money in America don’t believe government should have any function other than to protect their property.

  3. Oh sure. Atwater was teamed with Karl Rove and Roger Ailes. These three evil bastards ended up being the messengers from Hell… as far as politics is concerned. And who brought them to his side to help him win? George H.W. Bush. And he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    By reading both of Rick Wilson’s books, one learns about the distorted messaging that Republicans do, and have done, for decades. Why?

    Two reasons, I think, or at least what I researched and wrote in two books: #1: The donor class emerged as the largest influence on recruiting and developing Republican candidates. They were so easy to bribe and cheap too. #2: Rich white people AND poor white people react the same to people of color, generally, so, since Republicans have no intention of governing for all the people of the nation, they have to create messaging to feed the hate, fear, bigotry and prejudices of those two major groups.

    We might notice that the percentage of registered Republicans continues to shrink. Maybe they’re dying off.

  4. Excellent,

    When you think about it, there really is no dyed in the wool communism anymore! The leaders of those governments realized how much grift comes with capitalism! They saw that they were missing out. So the Russians, and the Chinese, morphed into something different than communism. But, a capitalistic hybrid easier to loot their governments wealth.

    Why have socialized programs to help everyone, when you can stick that money in your pocket? Those who are NOT part of the higher caste, the upper echelon, should be used as commodities the benefit the privileged! Nothing more than slave labor.

    When you keep people poor, when you keep them uneducated and ignorant, when you keep them hungry, when you keep them living hand to mouth, when they are concerned about basic shelter, they are less of a threat! They will always be concerned with survival more than politics.

    The more tattered the social safety net becomes, the easier it is to control the masses!

    What do they say? Cheaters are going to cheat! How about grifters are going to grift! Capitalism is the perfect vehicle for this.

    The euphoria gleaned by abusing those who are the least among us, which of course infects all of us, has always been the drug of choice for humanity! This Zeitgeist of evil inequity, has permeated history in every human epoch of time!

    Is there supposed to be a fix? The only fix I can see, is the fix being sought by the sadistic entitled caste, and that is the fix that sought by any junkie!

    The majority of humanity are just commodities to be used, abused, and manipulated for the benefit, the amusement, and the pleasure of the entitled! This has always been and will always be!

  5. JoAnn,
    segregation never left, it’s always been part of human society! History proves it! If you look through recorded history, the Jews were the canaries in the coal mine, they were always segregated, no matter the period of time you research. Second on the list are those of African descent, who have developed into the modern-day Canary especially over the past 500 years or so.

    Where is society heading? It’s there for all to see!

  6. Peggy @ 7:55 am wrote:

    “The problem is that those with the real money in America don’t believe government should have any function other than to protect their property.”

    The Confederacy was declared for this purpose to protect “property” which is what the slaves were.

    Socialists and Progressives like myself have not found the DNC or the High Command of the Democratic Party to be swayed at all from their Republican Light Ideology.

    The Squad, Bernie Bots and Elizabeth Warren are sidelined by the Democratic Establishment. The Left is always preached to about compromise. Americans do not understand what Socialism means. Why would they, it is “dirty word”. Socialism has been smeared by that easy to remember lie the Reactionary Right uses: Liberal=Socialist=Communist=Lenin=Stalin=Mao=Castro.

  7. ML,

    Yes. Sadly, that’s the messaging that the GOP invented to preserve white supremacy. It worked…and, sadly, still does.

  8. Hate to be the naysayer…but, to this boy, it ain’t that simple. There is more to the “brew” that we are in. One prominent element is “me” v/s “we” , whether the “me” is White, Progressive, Black, Evangelical, “the professional class” or whatever.

    Another is the skew in the tenuous web called Federalism. “The Federal government is useless – my town is fine…’

    And last, but not least, the breakdown in some common, underlying set of values and norms – hello sharp decline in religious affiliation and attendance. Hello to a world where there are no “curse words” – they are all everyday language – a world where criminal acts in the name of equality are cheered…

  9. I would rather pose this question, why does the word “socialism” scare the vast majority of Americans and not just Republicans?

    Remember, the DNC and their media outlets screamed socialism when Bernie Sanders was kicking their preferred candidates (including Joe Biden) in the arses. It works on Democrats, too.


    I would defer to Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious mind and all stored in this realm. Screaming “socialism” to the unconscious mind activates all kinds of fears because we’ve been told at a very early age that capitalism is king and socialism will make us lazy. It’s why Americans aren’t marching in the streets despite getting screwed over by an extractive system making the very few wealthy at the expense of all others.

  10. Robert Reich has a good column in The Guardian:

    Most of the 74,222,957 Americans who voted to re-elect Donald Trump – 46.8%of the votes cast in the 2020 presidential election – don’t hold Trump accountable for what he’s done to America.

    Their acceptance of Trump’s behavior will be his vilest legacy.

    Nearly forty years ago, political scientist James Q Wilson and criminologist George Kelling observed that a broken window left unattended in a community signals that no one cares if windows are broken there. The broken window is thereby an invitation to throw more stones and break more windows.

    In 2008, Wall Street nearly destroyed the economy. The Street got bailed out while millions of Americans lost their jobs, savings, and homes. Yet no major Wall Street executive ever went to jail.

    In more recent years, top executives of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, along with the members of the Sackler family that own it, knew the dangers of OxyContin but did nothing. Executives at Wells Fargo Bank pushed bank employees to defraud customers. Executives at Boeing hid the results of tests showing its 737 Max Jetliner was unsafe. Police chiefs across America looked the other way as police under their command repeatedly killed innocent Black Americans.

    Here, too, they’ve got away with it. These windows remain broken.

    Trump has brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane of all – American democracy.

    And he can get away with it. Almost half of the electorate will even vote for his reelection.

    It’s not simply the size of the broken window that undermines standards, according to Wilson and Kelling. It’s the willingness of society to look the other way. If no one is held accountable, norms collapse.

    The Trump Cult celebrates the vandalism of the Trump Regime. The Trump Cult believes the vandalism of “norms” is a kick in the face to the Libs and they are ecstatically enthusiastic about it .

    By comparison Atwater sprayed painted the windows The Trumpet-Pastor Pence Regime has thrown rocks through the windows and The Trump Cult cheers them on.

  11. That Republicans and their right-wing alt-reality media partners have successfully branded Dems and progressives as socialists is not surprising. What IS surprising to me is that Dems (but not progressives) and their media partners seem to be so unwilling to call Republicans out for the form of government they have truly espoused and represented, namely Crony-Capitalist Oligarchy (CCO). CCO has characterized the governance of this country throughout its history far more than the democratic republic idea enshrined in the US Constitution. But Dems, pundits and writers are afraid to say anything disparaging about capitalism, partially because most traditional Dems espouse the same thing. It would be like attacking Santa Claus.

    But with emergence of the Tea Party movement, including Trump and Trumpism, and ESPECIALLY his recent attempt to overthrow the Presidential election, it should be much easier to drop the clumsy CCO tag, and any reference to capitalism, and just start calling them what they truly are: fascists. Yes, that word. They don’t have to espouse the extermination of all people of Jewish faith to be fascists, although a common acronym found on extreme right clothing and websites is “6MWE” which stands for “6 million wasn’t enough”.

    And fascism is not wholly inconsistent with capitalism. It’s just that the capitalist oligarchs who control the majority of the economy and benefit most from its wealth-creation do so at the pleasure of the state.

    Here’s the definition of fascism in Wikipedia, which credits its invention to Benito Mussolini:

    “Fascism is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultra-nationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society and of the economy which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe”.

    Calling Republicans fascists is no more hyperbolic than calling Dems socialists (or “radical liberals”). For example, if some program sponsored by Dems to mitigate racial injustice can be called socialism then The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 can easily be called fascism, as it clearly resulted in the further consolidation of economic (and therefore political) power into a smaller and much wealthier class. But is doing so immoral? Would it violate the Michelle Obama mantra of “when they go low we go high”? I think the more important question, and one that millions of Germans should have asked in the 1930’s, is whether it is useful. Will it prevent the government of our society from becoming a fascist state.

    To be a democratic socialist republic (DSR) nation is mainstream not radical. It accounts for 2.9 BILLION people among 16 of the nations in the G20. Not included in that number are the four fascist or communist states of China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. I believe that the USA still belongs in the majority group but is hanging in the balance (as is the UK) as the fascist movement known as Trumpism will be here long after its amoral political leader leaves the White House in January.

    They’re not freedom-lovers. They’re fascists, or at least fascist-enablers. Just say it.

  12. The second part of the excellent documentary, The Reagans, on Showtime, does an outstanding job of showing how Reagan used language to manipulate the racial divide without ever using actual racial terms. There is a direct line between Reagan and Trump. Reagan was just “charming” enough to pull it off. Trump doesn’t understand the concept.

  13. Excellent. I have tried to think of a word to hit back with when my D party is referred to as liberal.

  14. John, Vernon ML, all on the mark.
    Just as gov’t propaganda focused on the drugs that were most prevalent in black communities, it twisted the concepts of both socialism and communism.
    The wealthy conservative world was never interested in helping anyone but themselves, and they were able to brainwash the masses by conflating gov’t compassion, if you will, with communism and socialism.
    Language paints mental pictures, and using it manipulatively can mix the colors in murky ways.

  15. I think that the path of the Republican Party has just followed the path of business that they are married to and that is steadily growing reliance on advertising to sell the products that they have.

    This is what Edward Bernays wrote about a century ago.

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”—Edward Bernays, Propaganda

    His advice and methods have been amplified by orders of magnitude by social and entertainment media to the point now where we have a growing number of teen age millionaire “influencers” among us. If they can do it even politicians can.

  16. No system or blend of systems lasts forever. Perhaps it’s time to have a constitutional convention and adopt a parliamentary form of government where minority parties have a say in policy, especially with the failure of our current blend of socialism and capitalism to deliver fair and equitable results for the majority, and this may be particularly necessary considering the increasingly sophisticated intellectual property that is being delivered to us by Silicon Valley up for classification.

    As for Republican misuse of words, the con men Sheila has identified would make Goebbels blush with envy. Socialism, like capitalism, may be a preferred ism, depending upon the task and scope of the effort to be covered. It is neither good nor bad in isolated context. It is not a stepping stone to communism, quite the contrary. European communists and socialists detest one another. Socialism is easily blended into capitalism; communism would find such a blend impossible. We need a section in our Civics classes dealing with “Definition of Terms.”

    So, uh, Prime Minister Biden?

  17. All we DON’T need is a Constitutional Convention! Look at how many states are run by the GOP. Look at the downward trend in “blueness” of the SCOTUS. Look at the loss by DEMs in the House in November. And KNOW that THEY have already drafted amendments….

  18. I don’t know if those who have necessarily think too much about those who have less as a result. They are more focused on protecting their resources so that they can always have what they have as a minimum. More is always a welcome goal.

    More is more defined by status than wealth but so often wealth is the means to status.

  19. Lester – Good point. A constitutional convention now would be filled with abortion and other such right wing narrow interest items for treatment. If we are to ever have a change to parliamentary government it would have to be years from now when, hopefully, current views are in the past and we are ready to come up with what is a new form of governing more likely to yield democratic results. Query: At such time need we look to the Constitution for the how to do it and all the time that entails since we are not looking to amend the Constitution but rather to dissolve the Constitution itself, and if so, can we make up our own ad hoc procedure to accomplish such a task?

  20. Ultimately, “socialism”, as it emerges from the mouth of a Republican, means “any act of government that benefits poor, working class, or middle class Americans more than it does wealthy people.” To understand this usage in more depth, think of the only non-funding bill of consequence passed during the Trump administration. It used tax strategies to funnel trillions of dollars into the coffers of corporations and the very wealthy, and in Republican eyes, was the antithesis of “socialism.” In reality it was socialism for the affluent, a well concealed plank in every Republican platform and the very essence of what Citizens United was all about..

    This discussion comes down to “what you think government is for.” If you see it as a way to make wealthy people wealthier, our neoliberal capitalistic system is charging ahead at breakneck speed. You only have to look at how money climbed higher on the wealth ladder during the year of Covid. How much more inequality are working people willing to endure?

  21. Patrick,
    A lot of good points! Over the many months commenting on this site, I brought up many of those same issues! Marv was another one that brought up these very points. A lot of them are unpopular points of view or maybe just painful history for some, they don’t really Care to embrace it. But, you can’t rewrite history, the truth is the truth.

  22. You nailed it, Terry. Those who use socialism as a scare word are themselves socialists in reality, a socialism practiced under the cover of capitalism, as in socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the rest of us. Our political response to their use of this term socialism should be that we already have it – for the rich – as they redistribute the wealth from the poor to the rich.

  23. Excellent start Sheila, but to really push it to the truth we need to emphasize the difference between political systems and economic ones. In theory, you could have all possible combinations, from democratic communist societies to capitalistic authoritarian ones.

    As John pointed out, Russia and China didn’t really go for “communism” once the leaders realized they could skim the cream for themselves. The only difference that China has made is that the “emperor” doesn’t pass leadership to his children.

    Communist “societies” have worked on small scales – think communal farms. And we should realize that the kibbutzim didn’t lose favor because of economic failure (NAOT shoes anyone?) but the “how do you keep the boys on the farm once they’ve seen gay Paree” or “how do you keep the boys (and girls) on the kibbutz once they’ve seen Tel Aviv”.

    As for Republican “memes”, Monotonous has the equation correct — and it has been repeated since before I was born. The problem is not only can’t the Democrats come up with a term to attack the authoritarians, but that many Democrats echo the fear of socialism (Amy Klobuchar – I reject socialism; I am for capitalism) – you would think that the Democrats were the party of Ronald Reagan, not FDR.

    Democrats hear “socialist” and cringe and say “NO – I spit on socialism”

    They should say – listen – we have been helping the common person since FDR and we are proud of it – “socialist” social security, “socialist” rural electrification, “socialist” medicare, etc.

    If you don’t like that, do without – don’t take social security, don’t take medicare, never call the police or fire department, or use the Internet, or public library, or any of the medicines developed through “socialist” government sponsored basic research.

    They won’t – the Democrats will continue to cower.

  24. And the why….. Fear …… not of benefiting ‘those people’ but of being replaced by ‘those people’.

    And if replaced, then wouldn’t ‘those people’ treat the people they replace the same way they’ve been treated?

    That’s the fear.

  25. Newer development in Carmel, IN is named Jackson’s Grant, after Andrew Jackson, the most racist (arguably) president in US history. You think any Native American or Black or Hispanic person doesn’t catch that innuendo and understand they’re not welcome there?

  26. I was surprised to hear the author define socialism as the Right does: as a political-economic system where higher tax rates enable the state to provide a wider and less porous social safety net. By accepting the Right’s definition, you give up ground from the start. Socialism, after all is the community (read: government) owning the means of production, and Marx viewed such a system as transitional to the even “better” system of communism which abolished of private property (a toxic idea even to the most bleeding-hearted among us). I am constantly amazed at the smart and well-meaning folks on the left who continue to equate socialism with a hefty social safety net and advocate for its wider acceptance among the electorate, going so far as to label it “Christian socialism.” This strategy will keep the Senate in Republican hands forever and guarantee more Democratic presidential candidates will win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College. We so-called “libs and radicals” in the center-left need a whole new lexicon. We shouldn’t be trying to sell socialism or a wider “social safety net;” we should be selling an “investment in human capital.” By that I mean living wages and an infrastructure for workers that helps them stay fed, housed, healthy, and mobile during a crisis so they can remain or become employed while their children are educated or otherwise well-supervised. That may also be a “safety net,” but it is first and foremost common sense for the common good. It benefits workers and their kids, as well as business owners by keeping their workers on the job and productive. Those who win the battle of words win the argument, and as a pragmatist, I’m giving socialism a wide, wide berth.

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