Politics & Policy

Liberals Are the New McCarthyites—and They’re Proud of It

Harry Reid leads today’s Pitchfork Persecutors.

It was just over 60 years ago that the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy were repudiated when he was censured by the Senate in December 1954. Ever since then, McCarthyism — the reckless hurling of accusations at adversaries so as to destroy their reputations — has been considered one of the lowest forms of political behavior and one liberals love to crusade against.

But McCarthyism isn’t limited to one party or ideology. And if liberals have any sense of self-awareness they will recognize the tactic has returned and is growing in their back yard.

Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, was asked by CNN’s Dana Bash this week if he regretted his 2012 accusation on the Senate floor that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney “hasn’t paid taxes for ten years.” Reid presented no evidence at the time and claimed he didn’t need any: “I don’t think the burden should be on me. The burden should be on him. He’s the one I’ve alleged has not paid any taxes.”

Reid’s response in the interview was fascinating. When asked by Bash if his tactic was McCarthyite he visibly shrugged on camera, smiled, and said “Well, they can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win, did he?” White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to criticize Reid for his comment because it “was three years old,” when in reality Reid’s televised reveling in it was only three days old. 

Las Vegas journalist Jon Ralston, who has observed Reid over the latter’s 30-year career in the Senate, has had enough. He revealed that he had written a harshly critical column in 2012 about Reid’s “ruthless, Machiavellian politics” in response to the senator’s accusation against Romney but saw it spiked by the Las Vegas Sun because its editor wanted to protect Reid.

The column pulled no punches in going after Reid: “He doesn’t care about being criticized for using the same tactics that Joe McCarthy used. . . . Is there anything more dangerous than a man who does not care? And a related question: Is there anything more sadly desperate than a party that will do anything not to talk about the economy and to change the subject to Mitt Romney’s wealth? . . . Sometimes the ends do not justify the means, even in the political swamp.”

But increasingly the political swamp is being governed by the law of the jungle. Take the Koch Brothers, who Reid has ceaselessly pilloried as “un-American” in speeches on the Senate floor. And the vilification continues, even with no election in sight. Just this past February, Salon published a piece by Thom Hartmann, America’s leading liberal talk-radio-show host, about the Koch Brothers. The title: “Fascism Is Rising in America.”

Liberals have become quite fond of using fascist imagery to denounce their opponents in some of the same ways conservatives used to warn about Reds under every bed. Al Gore calls his critics “digital brownshirts.” Last month, Vice President Joe Biden accused foes of union power of being “blackshirts.”

And then there are the “naming of names” and economic pressure that seem wildly out of place in a supposedly free marketplace of ideas. Last month, a group of 39 scientists accused the Smithsonian’s Museums of Science and Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City of compromising their “integrity” by accepting money from the Koch Brothers.

A related petition demanded the Koch Brothers be removed from any museum boards. The scientists claimed that the “only ethical way forward” was for institutions to “cut all ties” with climate-change skeptics and fossil-fuel companies. Syracuse University did just that this week by announcing its full divestment from fossil-fuel companies.

Senator Reid’s Democratic colleagues have joined in the shaming. Senators Barbara Boxer of California, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sent a letter in February to over 100 companies and think tanks demanding they reveal their ties to any efforts to argue against climate-change policies.

Koch Industries senior vice president Mark Holden wrote back to say, “We decline to participate in this endeavor and object to your apparent efforts to infringe upon and potentially stifle fundamental First Amendment activities.”

Most of the mainstream media failed to report on a blatant attempt by the senators to bully their opponents, even after the American Meteorological Society warned that fishing expeditions seeking information on specific critics of climate-change science “sends a chilling message to all academic researchers.”

Some of the hallmarks of the original McCarthyism are popping up in today’s variant. Media companies were pressured in the 1950s not to hire people suspected of Communist ties. Today, pressure is being applied to isolate or sideline scholars who disagree with climate-change policies. In the 1950s, people accused of heretical views were sometimes unfairly attacked or threatened. Today, people who oppose gay marriage sometimes see their jobs or businesses put at risk. Ask Brendan Eich, who was forced to step down last year as CEO of Mozilla for making a six-year-old donation to a measure opposing same-sex marriage. Or the owners of the Indiana pizza parlor who had to close their doors after threats mounted when they said they would serve any customers in their restaurant but wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.

Eric Dezenhall, who heads a crisis-communications firm in Washington, D.C., told Forbes magazine last year: 

There is a very specific narrative today on certain issues, and if you step an inch out of bounds, you’re going to get fouled or worse. [Eich] stepped on one of the three great land mines: gay rights, race, and the environment. You don’t have to have made flagrantly terrible statements to get into trouble now.

Back in the 1950s, there was a real threat of Communists in government, but the tactics of Joe McCarthy were often reckless and vicious. At the time, not enough conservative leaders criticized McCarthy and stood up for civil discourse. Today, the new Pitchfork Persecutors are being led by the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate and sanctioned by the White House itself. To paraphrase Joseph Welch, the Massachusetts lawyer who faced down McCarthy in congressional hearings that preceded his censure, shouldn’t we expect more decency from some of our leaders?

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