On Saturday, Georgia Congressman John Lewis went nuclear on John McCain, releasing a statement that seemed to compare McCain to segregationist George Wallace. "George Wallace never threw a bomb," Lewis wrote. "He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights." The civil rights con continued, "Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama."
Lewis accused McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division." He was referring to the angry tone of recent McCain rallies, where cries of "kill him" and "off with his head" have made many people anxious about the potential for violence against the Democratic nominee.
It's no wonder that the tone at McCain rallies remind Lewis of the bad old days. In recent months, conservatives have sounded increasingly retro with their attempts to paint Obama as a socialist or communist. In some ways, this accusation is typical far-right boilerplate. Obama certainly isn't the first Democrat running for president to be accused of communist sympathies. And as usual, the accusations are rarely linked to policy specifics. But the difference with Obama is that, in the eyes of the right, it's not just his political affiliation that implicates him as a socialist. It's his ethnic background.
The hysterical accusations of socialism from conservatives echo similar accusations leveled at black leaders in the past, as though the quest for racial parity were simply a left-wing plot. Obama may not actually be a socialist or communist, but his election would strike another powerful blow to the informal racial hierarchy that has existed in America since the 1960s, when it ceased being enforced by law. This hierarchy, which holds that whiteness is synonymous with American-ness, is one conservatives are now instinctively trying to preserve. Like black civil-rights activists of the 1960s, Obama symbolizes the destruction of a social order they see as fundamentally American, which is why terms like "socialism" are used to describe the threat.
This phenomenon extends beyond Obama's candidacy. The conservative explanation for the mortgage crisis falls neatly into this narrative, too; the country is at risk because Democrats allowed minorities to disrupt the natural social order by becoming homeowners. Never mind that this defies all data, logic, and history, the narrative resonates because it allows Obama, a living symbol of black folks rising above "their station," to become a focus for conservative economic anxieties.
Conservatives, now and in the past, have turned to "socialism" and "communism" as shorthand to criticize black activists and political figures since the civil-rights era. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X as written by Alex Haley, Malcolm recalls being confronting by a government agent tailing him in Africa, not long after his pilgrimage to Mecca. The agent was convinced that Malcolm was a communist. Malcolm spent years under surveillance because of such bizarre suspicions. Likewise, J. Edgar Hoover spent years attempting to link Martin Luther King Jr. to the communist cause. King, for his part, welcomed everyone who embraced the cause of black civil rights, regardless of their ideological ties. This included communists and socialists, but the idea that a devout man of God like King saw black rights as a mere step in a worldwide communist revolution was absurd. Malcolm was a conservative. King was a liberal. To their enemies, they were simply communists.
The feeling that black-rights activists were part of a front for communism and socialism was widespread. Jerry Falwell famously criticized "the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations." Falwell charged, "It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed." For the agents of intolerance, things haven’t changed much. On October 9, a McCain supporter told the candidate that he was angry about "socialists taking over our country." McCain told him he was right to be angry.
The right wing continues to link the fight for black equality with socialism and communism. At the website of conservatism’s flagship publication, National Review, conservatives like Andy McCarthy argue whether Obama is "more Maoist than Stalinist," and National Review writer Lisa Schiffren explicitly argued this summer that Obama must have communist links based on his interracial background. Schiffren mused, "for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics."
This conclusion is one she shares with Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s, who declared that "amalgamation is ultimately the goal of the Communist element." (To be fair, these conclusions make a bit of sense: could there be a more perfect vessel for a secret communist takeover of the United States than a biracial one-term senator from Chicago with an Arabic-sounding name? At a Starbucks somewhere, Chairman Mao is leeching WiFi for a quick instant message to William Ayers: "It’s happening exactly how we planned it.")
McCain, a child of privilege who spent the late 1960s in a Vietnamese prison camp, may simply be unaware of the feelings and historical context he has evoked through his campaign’s rhetoric. When Sarah Palin accuses Obama of "palling around with terrorists" and suggests that Obama hates his own country enough to wish it violence, the McCain campaign fuels age-old paranoia built around the conflation of black rights and the radical left. As for McCain himself, his attempts to tamp down the vitriol of his crowds suggest that he is somewhat confused by their response. He wants voters to dislike Obama, but he seems unaware of just what he has unleashed. However, by implicitly invoking the idea that Obama represents a socialist takeover of the United States, McCain is inviting what can only be a rational response from those who would die for their country: violence. What else is a patriot to do when freedom is threatened? Especially when their fears have been validated by no less authoritative a source than the Republican nominee for president of the United States?
John McCain is no George Wallace, and a direct comparison may not be what Lewis intended. Rather, Lewis was expressing concern that the McCain campaign’s rhetoric could lead some of their supporters to conclude that violence is the only rational response to an Obama victory. (This is essentially the position staked out by the Obama campaign, which both rejected the Wallace comparison and remained critical of the "hateful rhetoric" at McCain rallies.) A veteran of the 1968 civil-rights march with Dr. King across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, John Lewis has the kind of credibility on mob violence that John McCain has on torture.
We should listen to him very carefully.
Adam Serwer is a writing fellow at The American Prospect and recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also blogs at Jack and Jill Politics under the pseudonym dnA and has written for The Village Voice and the Daily News.