Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently announced she would raise her congressional staff’s wages. The average entry-level congressional staffer earns $31,500 a year; Ocasio-Cortez set the starting salary of her staff at $52,000.
The adjustment is logical, since her staff live in Washington, DC, and New York, two of the most expensive cities in the country. Ocasio-Cortez is simply compensating the people who make her office run with a living wage. But Fox News host Pete Hegseth responded to the move by decrying it as “socialism and communism.”
Now, imagine how that sounded to viewers struggling to keep up with rising living costs, as hundreds of millions do. If socialism is a system where people are rewarded for their work with economic security, then what does that make capitalism? Whatever the answer, it doesn’t sound so great.
Hegseth’s hyperbole was inane, unpersuasive, and, it would seem, laughably bad political strategy. But have some sympathy for Fox News. At this point, they just can’t help themselves. They’ve been calling every minor redistributive economic reform “socialist” for more than two decades. It’s a hard habit to break.
Most of what the Right calls socialism is hardly worthy of the name. Yet Fox’s breathless red-baiting has redounded to the advantage of actual socialists.
Fox is wedded to this rhetoric because it riles up their base and drives up ratings. Perhaps it made some sense on a political level in the late nineties and early aughts, when socialism had no mainstream resonance. But Fox and the sections of the GOP that are molded in its image made a major miscalculation when they decided to keep it up through the late aughts and the 2010s, as inequality, crushing student debt, and outrageously high housing costs have made capitalism synonymous with misery.
The result: an unintended coup for socialism. First, the Right’s exaggerations rendered the term functionally meaningless for most Americans. Then their consistent application of the socialist label to undeniably good things that people want actually started to make the term seem… well, attractive.
The late aughts were the turning point. Two major development happened then, to which Fox and other right-wing red-baiters failed to adjust. First, millennials came of age. The word “socialism” failed to act as an automatic repellent for this generation. You can’t simply say “socialism” to someone who was an infant when the Berlin Wall fell, as I was, and expect it to dampen their enthusiasm for much-needed redistributive reform. This is especially the case for a generation facing a grim economic prognosis.
The generations that came before us were subjected to a rigorous anti-socialist ideological campaign, analogous to the one millennials experienced around the idea of “terrorism.” But millennials were not ourselves witness to the height of that anti-socialist campaign, because in our youth, there was no active socialist presence to campaign against.
Chasing approval from baby boomers, the Right failed to account for this generational shift. Taking for granted that the word “socialism” would work its predictable magic, they left the subtext of their redbaiting largely unargued and unexplained. This miscalculation backfired terribly, actually hastening socialism’s jettisoning of its Cold War baggage — a jettisoning that many socialists had long hoped for — and eventually paving the way for positive associations among the young. American millennials now prefer socialism to capitalism.
But this isn’t just a story about millennials. People across generational divides have warmed to socialist ideas, as evidenced by self-avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ strong favorability among people of all age brackets. Nearly half of people age fifty-five and over, the target age bracket for Fox News’ alarmist evocations of the socialist boogeyman, report that they like Bernie Sanders.
This trend can’t be chalked up to fading historical memory alone. Many people who do remember the fall of the Berlin Wall no longer associate socialism with tyranny. This is because, for the vast majority of Americans, wages have stagnated while the cost of living has skyrocketed, and life under capitalism has itself begun to feel drab and unfree.
The Right made a particularly bad error when the economy collapsed in 2008: they turned the anti-socialist volume up instead of down. In the early days of the crisis, when it looked like there could be another 1930s-style depression, their obsessive anti-socialist commentary actually spiked. It was more a reflection of the Right’s own internal anxieties than any real threat at the time. But ironically, all the talk of socialism ended up inoculating people and helped make the threat real.
The Great Recession was devastating for ordinary Americans. Obama’s leadership through the crisis was hardly socialist in character (see: bank bailouts). But when he did try to modestly alleviate Americans’ economic suffering, as with the Affordable Care Act, he was met with untempered scaremongering about a socialist takeover. This despite the fact that the ACA was actually designed to preserve the private insurance industry — unlike its more socialist cousin Medicare for All, which replaces that industry with a universal tax-funded social program.
Still, it seemed to many like a step in the right direction — especially Medicaid expansion, which was always the most popular provision of the ACA (and is incidentally the least capitalist provision, Medicaid being a tax-funded public insurance program). And yet when the Democrats fought for it, Republicans accused them of being socialists and communists.
People got sick of it. They were fighting to pay rent, to pay off loans, to keep the house or the car, to afford tuition. They stopped caring if a proposal was vulnerable to allegations of socialism, because apparently everything that threatened corporate profits was. Maybe the ACA was the last straw, or maybe it was something else, but by the time the fog of recession lifted, popular associations with socialism had shifted dramatically.
This was the climate in which Bernie Sanders’ dark-horse presidential candidacy grew overnight. Bernie saw people’s softened resistance to socialism and took it a step further, articulating a positive political vision and suggesting that socialism is exactly the direction we need to be heading.
Since then, Bernie’s emergence since as a major political player has sealed the deal: socialism is no longer taboo. And it can no longer be taken for granted that the term evokes dictatorship and uniformity. To millions of people who are inspired by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the word instead evokes fairness, dignity, and solidarity.
By voiding socialism of meaning — and better yet, associating it with changes people actually want — Fox News and company paved the way for Bernie Sanders and the rise of democratic socialism here in the beating heart of global capitalism. For those of us who truly do desire a transformed economic system, this is a moment of enormous political opportunity. And in part we have Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and the rest of the gang to thank for it.
Ocasio-Cortez relished the opportunity to respond to Hegseth.
“The GOP is so disconnected from the basic idea that people should be paid enough to live,” she tweeted, “that Fox actually thinks me paying a living wage in my office is ‘communism.’ So the next time GOP screams ‘socialist,’ know that’s their go-to attack for any common-sense, humane policy.”
It was a pitch-perfect response, further tying socialism to the idea of fairness and demonstrating how out of touch the Right is with the growing appetite for redistribution and equality.
The Right’s habit of calling everything socialism is far from new, but it has never been less troubling. What used to be a savvy scare tactic for reactionaries is now a recruitment strategy for the other team. Unfortunately for them, and blessedly for us, that socialist threat isn’t fictitious anymore.