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March 19, 2019

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Applying ‘socialist’ label a hot campaign ploy, but will it work?

Danny Tarkanian

Danny Tarkanian

Sue Lowden

Sue Lowden


It has become the dirtiest word in the conservative movement’s dictionary.

They’ve hurled the epithet at President Barack Obama over the federal stimulus and at Congress over votes to pass the health care bill. No doubt the label will get a vigorous workout Saturday as the Tea Party Express stops in Searchlight to take aim at one of conservatives’ favorite targets — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But could the frequent use of the charge be sapping some of its impact? Has it jumped the shark?

Consider: In the Republican primary race for U.S. Senate, Danny Tarkanian has hit fellow candidate Sue Lowden — a casino owner worth an estimated $50 million and former chairwoman of the state Republican Party — with the socialist label.

In a recent automated telephone message, Tarkanian tells listeners his “latest message for freedom” — accusing Lowden of supporting the Wall Street bailout, which led to taxpayer money propping up the auto and insurance industries. “That’s not freedom. Let’s call it what it is: socialism,” Tarkanian says.

Joseph Valenzano, an assistant professor of communications at UNLV and a specialist in political rhetoric, said its use isn’t making the word go away — as long as the economy lags and people are worried about bigger government and its spending.

“Anytime in this society when you can create a one-word sum of an entire argument, and use that as a label for other people, it makes it more likely to be effective,” he said. “Right now, the word we’re talking about — socialist — does that because it totalizes the opponent.”

He compared the word’s use to liberals’ attempts to label conservatives as “fascists” or “Nazis.”

“The real trick in any campaign is, “Can I get my label to stick to you before yours gets stuck to me?’ ” he said.

Tarkanian has released two robocalls attacking Lowden, one for her position on the bank bailout and one accusing her of supporting pork spending.

Lowden’s camp maintains that she didn’t support the bailout, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which passed in October 2008.

Lowden told the Nevada Appeal: “It’s easy to say, ‘No, I wouldn’t have voted for it.’ But people were panicked, we were facing collapse — that’s what they were saying. It’s easy to say from a distance, ‘I would have voted no,’ but I can’t do that.” Her campaign said that she went on to list solid conservative senators who voted for the bailout.

On a Wednesday radio debate between Lowden and Tarkanian, the socialist attack was brought up again. Tarkanian denied using the term to describe Lowden, but when proof was produced, he backed down.

For the record, James Fisfis, Tarkanian’s spokesman, said, “We don’t think Sue Lowden is a socialist.” But Tarkanian stands behind the ad.

“Clear language needs to be used to describe the direction the country is headed,” Fisfis said. “The TARP bailout, in as much as it essentially put government in control of banks — no reforms, just move as much money as you can into the system, taxpayer money — that is akin to socialism. And that’s his point of view. If the implication you take from that is that Sue Lowden supports positions that are socialist, if that’s your point of view ...” His voice trailed off.

Robert Uithoven, Lowden’s campaign manager, said: “For Danny Tarkanian to call anyone a socialist in this primary shows how desperate and out of touch he really is with what’s going on. He’s feeding talking points that might get him on Glenn Beck’s show, but it’s about time he starts getting called out for the completely false charges he’s making.”

Fred Lokken, a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College, said the branding of enemies as socialists “will only end when it has reached the point that it no longer causes a reaction.”

Labeling Lowden a socialist could be a step in that direction. “It’s so detached from the reality of someone who seems like a successful businesswoman, who carries solid conservative credentials,” he said.

Meanwhile, this use of socialist as a dirty word puzzles the “real” socialists.

Billy Wharton, a national co-chairman of the Socialist Party USA, said “the people using it don’t understand what socialism is, in particular what democratic socialism really is.” For example, Wharton’s group did not support health care reform.

“This was not a health care reform bill; this was a corporate restructuring of the health care system,” Wharton said. About a year ago he wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post titled “Obama’s No Socialist. I Should Know.”

“These same corporations that created the crisis were given deeper access to the market,” Wharton said. “It’s a perfect example of how far away Obama is from a socialist position.”

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