The McCain campaigns' charges that Barack Obama has socialist leanings has left people talking about a word that hasn't played much of a role in modern elections. Our linguist, Geogg Nunberg, wonders why it's come up now.

GEOFF NUNBERG: What's most significant about the McCain campaign's claim that Obama is a socialist is that they had to thrash through so many other charges before they got around to it. Obama is inexperienced. He's all talk. He's an out of touch elitist. He's a celebrity. He'll say anything to get elected. He hangs out with a former terrorist. And then - oh and did we mention he's also a socialist?

There was a time when that was always the first charge Republicans turned to when somebody proposed increasing the role or power of government. The income tax, child labor law, social security, FDIC, the civil rights act of 1948. To Republicans at the time, they were all either socialistic or creeping socialism, a phrase coined by the Republican Thomas Dewey in 1939.

Democrats found it maddening. In 1952, Harry Truman said that when a Republican said down with socialism, he really meant down with progress. But it was only with the eclipse of liberalism and the breakup of international communism that the charges of socialism began to yield to a new anti-big government rhetoric. Ronald Reagan taught the Republicans that the Washington bureaucrat could be made to look scary enough without having to paint him as an incipient commissar.

These days, creeping socialism has been consigned to the dust bin of history. And you're likely to encounter the word socialistic only on talk radio or conservative blogs. And as best I can tell, neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney has ever used the word socialist or socialism in the context of American politics.

So, why has the McCain campaign tried to resuscitate the words? It may be that liberal has been so saturated with feat cultural stereotypes that it didn't have much impact left when the conversation turned to economics. Or maybe socialist itself has become so unusual in electoral politics that it started to sound sinister and exotic. You could have that impression when you hear the calls of he's a socialist when Obama is mentioned at McCain and Palin rallies. At least it's hard to imagine people at Democratic rallies yelling he's a supply-sider when McCain's name comes up.

But it's been 70 years or more since anybody thought that socialism was a serious political alternative for America. In modern times, the persuasive power of the S word has always been symbolic, not substantive. As Walter Lippmann once put it, it's one of those words that are meant to assemble emotions after they've been detached from their ideas. And to most Americans, the emotions that socialism stirs up have always had less to do with political theories than with the cast of characters the word has brought to mind from one era to the next, bomb throwing radicals, super silly parlor pinks, insidious subversives, Soviet thugs, third world gorillas, pretentious French intellectuals.

To Joe the Plumber and a lot of other people, the word socialism is still chilling. The ism dismalest of all, as the Chad Mitchell Trio put it in the 1962 song. But it isn't clear that the word still casts a dark spell for those outside the conversations of the right. Earlier this year, the Harvard School of public health commissioned a survey of American attitudes about socialized medicine. It turned out that more people said that socialization would improve the healthcare system than said it would make things worse. And among people under 35, the proportion of those who approved of socialized medicine was almost two to one. Not that most of those people have a clear understanding of socialized medicine or socialism itself for that matter. Americans have always been a little fuzzy on that concept.

But if you were eight years old when the Berlin wall fell, the word socialism probably isn't going to sound very toxic to you. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the last thing a party abandons is its language. But it doesn't happen all at once. It reminds me of what linguists call hearth languages, those dying tongues that are no longer used in the wider world but are still spoken by old women around the kitchen table.

The left has a hearth language of its own, the discarded limbs of the heyday of liberalism. 50 or 60 years ago, no Democrat could finish his speech without denouncing the Republicans as reactionaries. Now, that word is barely a 10th as frequent in the press, and it doesn't appear at all in the pages that the Democratic National Committee posts at its website. But it still gets thousand of hits at sites like the The Huffington Post and the Daily Coast, where liberals keep it on life support.

The hearth language of the right is where you find the vocabulary of old style anti-communism preserved in Azpec(ph). Take class warfare, another item that's lately reappeared. It's still the first term that conservatives reach for whenever the Democrats proposed tax increases for the wealthy. But it's been a long time since it conjured up images of workers in cloth caps building barricades in the street. Surveying the debris of the Soviet empire in 1991, Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, announced communism is over, and that means that anti-communism is over, too. But linguistically, it's taken a while for that to sink in.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information at the University of California at Berkeley.


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