At first I wondered whether John McCain understands what socialism is. After all, he's completely off base in calling Barack Obama a socialist.
But I quickly came to my senses. Of course McCain knows what socialism is, and of course he knows Obama is not a socialist.
McCain doesn't care about the accuracy of his attacks. He simply believes that calling Obama a socialist will scare some Americans into voting for him.
It won't work -- for several reasons. But before we get into why it won't work, let's take a brisk hike through the fields of history and political science.
Socialism is a political theory that revolves around substantial government management of the economy. The motivating factor is the desire to improve the lives of the poor.
This philosophy has been far more successful in other countries, but there have been periods in American history when socialism gained a modest following. The first was the Progressive Era, when the rich got very rich and working people were excluded from the largesse. Eugene V. Debs, the man most closely identified with this period of socialist activism, garnered 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election. That's a big number for a third-party candidate, especially one espousing such a radical philosophy.
Socialism failed to take hold in the United States at that time, but it did prevail in Russia, where the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. Socialists around the world held great hopes that Vladimir Lenin would show in practice the merits of this philosophy. But it didn't take long for most to realize that the Russian Revolution would not yield a socialist utopia.
When the Great Depression gripped the United States in the 1930s, causing massive unemployment, hunger and despair, support for socialism bubbled up again, manifesting itself primarily in the form of organized labor.
With so many people hurting, socialists had a real opportunity to gain a foothold.
They were thwarted, however, by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, who succeeded in confronting the economic crisis with a series of bold government initiatives called the New Deal, the greatest legacy of which is Social Security. Roosevelt adapted some socialist principles to confront the dire crisis, but managed to do so without sacrificing his mainstream credibility.
Socialism fared better in Europe during this period, evolving into a more modest form dubbed social democracy. With the Soviet Union offering a horrible example, social democracy emphasized personal freedom and civil rights alongside government management of the economy.
After World War II, fears generated by the Cold War with the Soviet Union fueled the Red Scare, the witch hunt for "communists" led by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Although it was exposed as a fraud, the Red Scare, for all intents and purposes, stuck the knife into socialism in the United States. The great civil rights and anti-war movements of the '60s sent thousands of people into the streets to protest government injustice, but while many called for revolution, few espoused a recognizable socialist agenda.
So, here we are in 2008, at least 50 years since the word socialism was capable of generating fury and panic, and McCain is calling his opponent a socialist.
Beyond the fact that McCain's smear is patently inaccurate -- socialists must be insulted by the comparison when Obama doesn't even support a single-payer health care system -- the political challenge is this: Socialism means little to most born after about 1960, and it means nothing to most born after 1980.
McCain's "spread the wealth" sound bites might help solidify the conservative base, as the pundits say, but it won't have much influence with undecided voters, who tend to be independent, moderate and actually interested in how the candidates are going to address Iraq, Afghanistan and the foundering economy.
Socialism has never been a significant fear in the United States, and it hasn't been a perceived fear for more than half a century. At 72, perhaps McCain doesn't realize that in 2008, the Red Scare constitutes a paragraph or two in high school textbooks, as relevant to young people as the Teapot Dome Scandal.
More immediately, McCain must not fully comprehend that the biggest socialist act since the New Deal occurred just a few weeks ago. That's when McCain -- yes, that one -- joined Obama in voting for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.
McCain apparently takes issue with socialism only as a means to vilify his opponent. Dozens of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the bailout. If McCain has such a problem with socialism, he could have voted against it, too. Instead, he joined his congressional comrades in enacting a huge government intervention in the free market, including the partial nationalization of banks.
If we're being honest -- I know it's tough at this frenzied partisan moment -- we have to recognize not only the fallacy of McCain's socialist smear, but the hypocrisy as well.
Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Friday.