In the early 1950s, as my mother was completing her degree at what was then known as the Willimantic State Teachers College, now Eastern Connecticut State University, as part of her training she was a student teacher at the Horace Porter Elementary School in the nearby Columbia, Connecticut. She was leading the fifth grade class in a survey of world affairs and did a presentation on the Soviet Union. One of her students unhelpfully went home and told her parents that my Mom was teaching communism. This was during the McCarthy era and the Red Scare it spawned, so this child’s comments landed my mother in front of the president of her college. She was almost expelled. Fortunately, a World War II veteran was in the classroom as a student teacher with her, and was able to assure the college’s administrators that my mother was teaching about communism not advocating for it, and she was given her degree. But, you can imagine her fear at the time.
Consequently, you can imagine how I reacted to the recent statement by Congressman Allen West that “there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.” Unlike Sen. McCarthy, who never had the list he claimed to have of members of the Communist Party working at the State Department, West clearly identified who was on his list: the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
I was not going to write about the incident because, after all, we call say things we do not mean at times, everyone has a bad day, etc. And surely West, who considers himself something of a history buff, must know that the Red Scare was not America’s finest hour. But, now Cong. West has not only failed to retract his outrageous claim, he has doubled down on it. “No, I don’t regret it whatsoever,” he told a press conference. “I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to be afraid that I called a spade a spade….At the turn of the century, American communists renamed themselves progressives. There’s a very thin line between communism, progressivism, Marxism, socialism or even as Mark Levin has said statism.”
Silly me – all this time I thought Woodrow Wilson was a Presbyterian. And, I would have thought that Mr. West would be grateful to at least one member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, John Conyers, for his vote in favor of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a vote that helped guarantee West, a black man in Florida, would have the right to vote. And, certainly, Rep. John Lewis had something to do with the civil rights movement that made careers like West’s possible. Lewis is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But, in West’s coarse and hoary view of modern intellectual history, there is not a smidgen of difference between Conyers and Stalin, between Lewis and Mao. After all, that learned scholar Mark Levin has demonstrated their convergence.
The issue here, however, is not really who is and is not a communist. Nor is the issue whether or not Mr. West is capable so speaking and defending truly idiotic remarks. The question is why no one in the leadership of the republican Party has called him out for these remarks. Had he spoken them on the floor of the House, surely he could be censured. But, because West is one of the top fundraisers among congressional Republicans, because he is a darling of the Tea Party, not a word about his outrageous claims. This provides the rest of us with a clue as to the GOP strategy this year: It will be built on fear.
Speaker of the House John Boehner is a good and decent man. I disagree with him on many issues, probably on most issues, but I do not doubt that he loves his country and wishes to see it prosper. I do not doubt that Mr. Boehner knows more of history than Mr. West and knows what an ugly stain McCarthyism was on the nation’s polity. But, Mr. Boehner knows something else, namely, that if the GOP has any hope of winning the election this year, they have to run on fear. They certainly can’t run on the Ryan budget, which is about as unpopular as unpopular can be. The leadership GOP is stepping away from the culture war issues as fast as they can, backing away from the fight against the HHS mandates, restraining their denunciations of same sex marriage, and trying to find a version of the DREAM Act that the Tea Party can live with. (Good luck with that last one!) What’s left? Fear and there is no fear as powerful as fear of the other.
To be sure, there have been many Democrats who have said outrageous and hateful things about President George W. Bush, although I do not recall members of Congress doing so. I recall the charge by several leftie commentators that Bush was a fascist, which was absurd and offensive – although I do not think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that Dick Cheney and Mussolini might have talked long into the night. (That’s a joke people!) But, those who hold elected office should be held to a higher standard than blowhards on cable news shows. I do not think Republican office holders should be responsible for the latest stupidity to come forth from Rush Limbaugh, but Mr. West is not a radio host. He is a member of Congress. He should know better, and if he doesn’t Speaker Boehner does and should intervene. Fear may work for an election cycle, but it is deadly in a democracy which requires that all participants check their passions and engage in frank, even heated, but honest discussion and debate about the issues of the day.