Barack Obama. He’s black. He’s got a funny name. He’s rather liberal. All of these things are somewhat novel in the annals of American presidential politics, and journalists have a hard time figuring out how to treat them.

On The American Prospect’s Web site, Adam Serwer argues that conservative attempts to accuse Barack Obama of being a socialist correspond to the right-wing racist tradition of condemning prominent blacks for their purported communist leanings:

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.

The problem with this line of argument is that directly connecting the Obama campaign to the struggles of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. ignores the fact that, during the last century, lots of Americans actually feared communism. As some prominent blacks actually were communists, attempting to draw connections between radical blacks and the Soviet Union made sense for the right, both ideologically and strategically.

But while aligning Obama to radical blacks makes tactical sense, nobody (or nobody credible) really thinks Obama is a communist. It is 2008. Americans, no matter how ill-informed, do not actually worry that the red menace will strike again.

And it’s not really clear that these insinuations of Marxism are a racial thing as much as a liberal politics thing. Historically, conservatives have seen communists everywhere. Even a rabid anti-communist like Richard Nixon was just as eager to accuse white people of being communists.

More interesting is the article’s discussion about black liberation as part of a general communist plot:

Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s… 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.”)

This is, admittedly, kind of a cute turn of phrase, but the image highlights precisely why the notion of Obama as a communist is so ludicrous. No one actually thinks Obama is taking messages from some communist overlord. (And who would that overlord be, anyway?) During the Cold War, people actually worried about that sort of thing. The Prospect article goes on to explain:

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?

This is exaggerated. Even if terrorism is the new socialism, the governor of Alaska—who admittedly is often misinformed—is not implying that Barack Obama is a socialist; she’s implying he’s a terrorist. While both of those implications are inaccurate, they’re not identical.

It’s unclear whether Serwer actually believes that tossing around the word “socialism” will actually lead to violence against Obama. This idea of Obama as a top assassination target is a media obsession lately, but the potential for violence is always a problem for presidential candidates. There’s no legitimate reason to think violence is any more likely this time around. “What else is a patriot to do when freedom is threatened?” Well, vote for the other candidate. That’s the point of all of this rhetoric—just to get people to vote for McCain.

The author seems to imply that these accusations and insinuations are basically just designed to associate Obama with other “dangerous” blacks. Because aren’t “communist” and “socialist” just shorthand for “you should be afraid of him?” One thinks the author would have made more of that point. He didn’t, however, because it’s not really valid. “Communist” and “socialist” used to be shorthand for “you should be afraid of that person.” But today, “Communist” is shorthand for nothing.

There are a number of interesting things one can say about how the right attempts to portray Obama, particularly in light of its historical treatment of other black politicians. Indeed, his opponents are throwing plenty of nasty and potentially damaging rumors at Obama during this campaign. But rumors of communist leanings are not primary among these. It’s like accusing Obama of being an Anti-Federalist or a Roundhead. And it’s not something about which Americans need to worry much.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.