Halloween 2008: Obama, Witches and the Slow Death of Joe McCarthy

So here we are at the end: of campaign 2008 certainly, and of the modern conservative movement perhaps.

Boo! That’s all McCain and his supporters have left. Obama is a “Marxist,” a “socialist” and a “terrorist,” all fascinating words to see applied to a center-left senator from a Midwestern city embedded in a relatively conservative state. Not that most of the folks spouting the word “Marxist” would know a dialectical theory of history if it bit them in the ass, but that’s not the point: when used by right-wing activists, the actual meaning of words like “socialist” is irrelevant. They’re really just another way of saying “bad,” “scary” and “wrong,” and they’re what you use when you’re out of ideas. He’s a witch! Burn him!

What’s fascinating is how we’ve come full circle. Though modern conservatism sprung up in response to FDR’s government interventionism, with plenty of Republicans in the 1930s labeling the New Deal socialist, it really got rolling in the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1940s and ’50s, with Joe McCarthy and his ilk doing the dirty work and intellectuals like Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol providing the ideas. Back then, communism MEANT something — even most liberals saw great evil in Stalin’s regime, and scaring voters with the specter of socialism worked because there really WAS a socialist model attempting to compete with capitalism.

As East and West veered from confrontation to détente and back to confrontation, other scare terms came to the fore, particularly ones based on race and class. “Crime in the streets” was Nixonian code for keeping white people safe from poor minorities, just as “crack babies” justified draconian prison sentences for inner-city cocaine users 20 years later (their white suburban counterparts went to rehab). The 2000 election might have been a pivot point, since the peace and relative prosperity of the 1990s had taken much of the sting out of the scare words of the previous generation, but Bush’s response to 9/11 brought a new round of fear-mongering right back into the political toolbox — so much for “compassionate conservatism”. Hence the shouts of “terrorist” when Obama’s name comes up at McCain rallies: some may actually picture Obama in a suicide bomber’s vest in their minds, but for most it’s a stand-in for “other,” “alien,” “scary,” “non-white,” and “dangerous” (they’re all alike, you see…).

And so in the last days of the McCain’s run for the presidency, we see both strains of right-wing fear come together in ugly harmony. Out of ideas and veering madly from tactic to tactic, McCain’s campaign has nothing else to offer: only the fear that Obama and the Democrats will betray our values and interests and lead us all to ruin. But this time it doesn’t seem to be working, except among the true believers: Bush’s utter failure both to lead us in the right directions and to govern effectively over the last eight years has finally created the opportunity for a different kind of political discourse to triumph. And if Obama and the Democrats win by the kind of margins the polls are predicting, we may see a new ruling philosophy of government take power for the foreseeable future.

Not that conservatism is going away, of course — the next generation of activists is already forming ranks and taking up arms (Facebook and cell phones among them). And even if the Democrats and their ideas do hold sway for a decade or three, eventually the worm will turn and the Left will take its time in the wilderness. But looking at the rhetoric of McCain and his supporters today, all I can see is the last flailing gasps of that strain of conservatism that exploded in the anti-communist 1940’s and ’50s, came to power with Nixon and Reagan and stayed with us through the dark years of Bush the Second. If Florida in 2000 was tragedy, McCain/Palin is farce: this round of conservatism ends not with a whimper, but with a ragged fearful howl in the dark.


Spooky addendum: When originally published, this article contained exactly 666 words. Coincidence? You be the judge…

Update 2: This piece sparked a loooooooooooong discussion on my Facebook page, if you’re curious.

Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles