Wednesday night our insane presidential campaign finally got around to spitting up a tactic we knew would rear its head sooner or later. I’m speaking of “red-baiting,” that practice of insinuating a candidate is some sort of communist sleeper agent, who, once elected, will turn the means of production over to the state and force us all to sing “The Internationale” while bringing in our collective’s grain harvest.
The old red-diaper-baby dog-whistle broke out toward the end of the Democratic debate, when the moderators from debate host Univision, taking off from a discussion about the United States and Cuba normalizing relations, dug up a 30-year-old clip of Bernie Sanders seeming to praise Fidel Castro:
“You may recall way back in, when was it, 1961, they invaded Cuba, and everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world. All the Cuban people were going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro. They forgot that he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed their society.”
The moderators also mentioned Sanders’ support in the 1980s of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas and asked if he regretted his characterizations of Ortega as “an impressive guy.” This led to a brief history lesson covering the United States’ centuries-long habit of meddling in the affairs of Latin America, propping up dictators and right-wing insurgencies, and sounded like a reading you might have wandered into in Midnight Special in Santa Monica back in the 1990s.
That the moderators pursued this cheap and silly smear should not really surprise anyone. The debate took place in Miami, and south Florida has an enormous population of refugees and descendants of refugees from Central American regimes. There are still Cuban exiles who loathe Fidel Castro and oppose normalizing relations with the island nation as long as he and his brother Raul remain in power. So it’s not tough to imagine that this seemed like an important question to locals, even if asking it meant ignoring all the terror perpetrated by U.S.-backed right-wing regimes and insurgencies throughout history.
Afterward, Sanders supporters were howling on social media that comments from 1985 were irrelevant in this election, especially to young voters born after the Soviet Union fell. In this, they are correct. I’ve written before that fear-mongering about socialism to young voters won’t work for Republicans in the fall because the word isn’t the fearful talisman to people too young to remember what life was like during the Cold War.
The problem is that, so far, the promised wave of heretofore invisible youthful voters who were supposed to be motivated by Sanders to come out to vote has not appeared in the primary, where Democratic turnout is generally down from 2008. This means Sanders is going to need to grow his coalition by bringing in more middle-aged and older voters just to get out of the primary, let alone in November.
So Sanders’ supporters are wrong to try to wave this attack away as a dumb distraction. (If this is irrelevant, then I never want to hear about Hillary Clinton having been a Goldwater Girl in 1964 ever again.) Because as a campaign tactic, it could have some salience in a general election. Not to convert undecided voters necessarily, though the number of moderates who barely pay attention to politics and could be swayed by such a sound bite is probably a lot higher than many partisans realize. But it could easily be used as a cheap scare to motivate conservative voters to get to the polls. Which is why Sanders and his team need to have sharp defenses at the ready.
Red-baiting of this type has never left our politics. We’ve seen it as recently as the last two campaigns, when conservatives tried to tie left-wing activists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn to Barack Obama. There were dark hints that the president was under the pernicious spell of the radical ideology these two former members of the Weather Underground had espoused in the 1960s. Even today, conservatives will still go out of their way to warn that Obama has turned the United States into a socialist nation.
The red-baiting of Obama was transparently silly to anyone who paid even the slightest attention to his politics and his governing style. But that undercurrent of fear of a leftist takeover is still present in the American psyche. So take a candidate who self-identifies as a democratic socialist (yes it’s different than a flat-out socialist, but good luck betting that the average American voter will recognize the subtle difference) and has based his campaign on calls for “revolution,” and you can see how, as Charlie Pierce put it over at Esquire, his statements on the Sandinistas “are fertile ground for conservative ratfcking.”
Seriously, watch that clip again. Sanders totally yadda-yaddas the less-than-admirable aspects of the Castro regime – the brutal repression and state-sanctioned violence against dissenters – by saying “Not to say that Fidel Castro or Cuba are perfect. They are certainly not.” Any Republican candidate who doesn’t put that into an attack ad so they can point to it and scream all sorts of slurs would be committing political malpractice.
So while this line of attack might be stupendously dumb, so are political campaigns. And bringing up New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as an example of someone who survived the Sandinista-supporter smear (yes, I have seen that argument made) is not going to cut it.