Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Anticommunist testimony and the red-baiting of Bernie

The Atlantic has published an article that ostensibly explains Why Soviet Refugees Aren't Buying Sanders's Socialism. On the merits, it never gets off the ground; as so often happens with these demographic arguments against Sanders, the author never gets around to factually establishing her underlying claim. Olga Khazan does not even attempt to survey a significant number of Russian immigrants, nor does she cite anyone else's polling on the matter. Instead, the piece relies entirely on two points of anecdote and conjecture:
1. Khazan conducts "Interviews with more than a dozen immigrants...in the bay area...part of a small circle - indeed, they know each other." 
2. Khazan notes that "some researchers have found that Russian Jews tend to be both less religious than their American counterparts and more conservative," and cites a potential 30-40 point swing in their vote towards Republicans since 2012.
I'll address these in turn. 

Soviet Jews for Sanders

The first point barely warrants a rebuttal: it's trivially easy to find a handful of people from any demographic who share any perspective, and this implies zero about the broader community. One doesn't have to look far to find prominent Jewish former Soviets who openly support Sanders, from Regina Spektor to Milana Vayntrum; but in about an hour, I was able to track down plenty of immigrants who, it turns out, aren't particularly concerned about the dangers of a Soviet Sanders regime.

"The claim that Sanders is anything close to a communist, or would bring about a communist revolution is absurd," said Alik, a Sanders supporter who grew up in Ukraine. "There is little evidence that we would turn into an authoritarian leader. In fact, some of his opponents are much more in line with the ideology of authoritarian leftism, enforcing what they believe to be the appropriate liberating policy on the people."

Phil Michalski, who immigrated from Poland in 1978 and who describes his parents as "staunch anti-Communists," also dismissed the idea that a Sanders presidency would bring anything like communism to the United States.

"I think it's an outlandish idea," he said. "More worried that if Clinton becomes [president], we'll go down the neoliberal tubes so far that the natural reaction by a working class ground down by Clinton, et all, will be fascist blowback".

"Bernie's clearly not a communist," said Yasha Levine, a journalist who grew up in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). "His policies are more in line with a New Deal Democrat than anything else."

Levine went on to observe, as most members of the community would confirm, that the Soviet diaspora in America often does include a distinct strain of immigrants - particularly the older ones - who conflate progressive / left politics with communism. "Can't blame the older generation too much," he said. "They're warped and broken politically. Life in the Soviet Union was hard - especially if you were Jewish, poor with no connections. It ruined the whole socialist thing, no matter how mild it may be."

What do the polls actually say?

This complicated reaction to their experienced in the Soviet Union, with its tendency to conflate all kinds of divergent politics, points us to problems with the article that are even more serious.

In passing, Khazan cites "preliminary data" that suggests a potential 40 point swing towards Republicans among Russian Jews since 2012. This is an odd point to make, since it directly defeats her argument: even if we attribute this entire swing to anticommunist fear of Sanders, 40% is a minority. Evidently, the majority of this community either opposed Obama in 2012 or would not oppose Sanders in 2016. However their experience of communism informs the politics of Russian Jews, these numbers just don't indicate any kind of unique concern about Sanders.

In fact, there's obviously no argument to be made about this statistic that could not be used against Clinton. It's sheer question begging to assume this shift is a referendum on Sanders - and to then appeal to that assumption as evidence of a referendum on Sanders.

Similarly, Khazan relies on sheer conjecture when she uses research indicating that Russian Jews are "more conservative" to establish some kind of unique opposition to Bernie Sanders. This is particularly true given the tendancy Levine cited: Soviet anticommunists in particular (and anticommunists in general) tend to flatten the significant diversity of liberal-left politics into a single, vaguely communist monolith. There's no reason to suppose that Clinton would escape this flattening, and as Khazan herself notes, "she’s far too left for them".

To establish some kind of unique opposition among Soviet immigrants to Sanders, you would clearly have to ask questions that are far more specific than anything Khazan can point to - or indeed, anything that any of the pollsters have asked.

To the extent that we do have anything resembling direct data on the topic, it does little to help Khazan's argument. Among the general populace, neither economic nor ideological indicators do much to suggest a significant role for socialism in this election. Among Americans who've experienced life in former Soviet states, about 75% support Sanders. If we're interested in Americans who've experienced the "mild socialism" advocated by Bernie Sanders, we could look at the countries he brings up constantly: the Nordic states. But there, the number is essentially the same: about 75% of American expats reporting from those countries also support Sanders.

When I spoke to Julia, a young Swede who lives in Stockholm, she suggested that even this degree of support could be misleading. "The most anti-Bernie people I've come across have been from the harder left who believe that our model of social democracy doesn't constitute real socialism, and this is a position a lot of leftists hold."

In other words, people from the European left - who have far more direct experience with variants of socialism and communism than their American counterparts - see Sanders' politics as relatively conservative.

"Support seems to range from leftists to social democrats to social liberals who would be considered right-of-center on the Swedish political spectrum," Julia said. "I think that has to do with the fact that even a lot of people who don't vote red have grown so accustomed to social democratic reforms such as free health care and higher education and a good welfare system that those things are now widely viewed as basic rights that should exist in any developed society."

Standard red-baiting

So while Khazan's claim that "Soviet refugees aren't buying Sanders's Socialism" may survive in the utterly trivial sense that she found some anticommunists at a San Francisco birthday party, she provides no direct evidence to believe that Russian Jews are significant opponents of Sanders in particular, or of his social democratic agenda.

And of course, there's only one reason to believe that their particular experience would be relevant in the first place: what Alan Barth, in his classic work on anticommunism The Loyalty of Free Men, describes as "the eager credence" red-baiters give to the testimony of former Soviets. Writes Larry Ceplair in Anti-Communism in Twentieth Century America: A Critical History:
Louis Budenz, who became the most ubiquitous professional witness, stated that "the most truthful people in the world are the ex-Communists." Arthur Koestler, perhaps the most famous ex-Communist, wrote that "only those who have worked inside the hermetically closed regime know its true character and are in a position to convey a comprehensive picture of it."
Not all former Soviets are former communists, of course, but the logic of identitarian deference holds, particularly among the left's critics: people who have lived under communism have authoritative testimony on its defects. Of course, no one ever extends this logic to everyone who happens to live under a capitalist regime, and few of Sanders' Democratic critics would even extend it without reservation to Soviet dissidents, particularly if they have names like Ayn Rand.

Still, Ayn Rand is famous for a reason. Democrats may not be willing to give radical Objectivists a platform themselves - but when they indulge in the old red-baiting trick of parading around cherry-picked Soviet defectors to punch left, they're legitimizing the politics that put Rand on the map. More thoughtful liberals learned that they need to engage their left-critics on the merits, rather than trafficking in sensational anecdotes; and above all, they needed to make careful distinctions among the many varieties of progressive, socialist and communist thought. After all, once social democrats are tarred as communists, liberals won't be far behind.