Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Where's the outrage over Republican's 'communist' claim?

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 5:42 AM EDT, Mon April 16, 2012
U.S. Rep. Allen West (center, at a 2011 news conference about payroll taxes) recently said he believes up to 81 Democrats in the U.S. House are communists.
U.S. Rep. Allen West (center, at a 2011 news conference about payroll taxes) recently said he believes up to 81 Democrats in the U.S. House are communists.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP congressman falsely claimed up to 81 Democrats in House are communists
  • John Avlon says leaders of right and left have to condemn extreme views in their ranks
  • He says Rep. Allen West's attempt to raise funds compounded his nutty claim

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."

New York (CNN) -- "I have here in my hand a list of 205 communists ..."

The ghost of Joe McCarthy's ulcerous accusations hung over a disturbingly casual comment this past week by U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Florida.

When asked by a constituent at a town hall, "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists?"

"That's a fair question," West replied. "I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party."

Keep in mind that this is the man Sarah Palin recently recommended be Mitt Romney's vice presidential nominee.

John P. Avlon
John P. Avlon

And not only did West not apologize -- or receive significant criticism from his fellow Republicans -- his revealing response was to raise funds off it.

The number West picked out was apparently based on the number of congressmen affiliated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This is an organization of the most liberal members of Congress, but to call them communists is a slander splashed with blood.

Communists, of course, murdered more than 100 million people in the past century, if you add up the rough total of butchery by Vladimir Lenin (Soviet Union), Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Mao Zedong (China) and Pol Pot (Cambodia). This is the reason people were understandably offended at Miami Manager Ozzie Guillen's recent comments professing admiration for Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro.

Allen West: I might say yes to VP slot

But there were no widespread protests or requests for censure in West's case. Instead it was greeted as an almost unremarkable part of the new normal.

A military man of West's rank understands the magnitude of his misstatement. So I'm assuming that he was sincere in the accusation.

To equate liberals in Congress with communists is like equating conservatives in Congress with fascists -- something only the most brain-dead Occupy protester would attempt.

And just for a moment imagine if a liberal member of Congress made an equal and opposite accusation, saying that all the members of the tea party caucus were Nazis. It would be rightly greeted with wall-to-wall outrage.

But the asymmetric polarization of our politics has made such accusations within the easy reach of politically successful ideologues at unguarded moments.

West's comments were simply extensions of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's infamous statement in 2008 about how then-candidate Barack Obama -- and many Democratic members of Congress -- held "anti-American views."

They really believe this stuff: Anyone who is not avowedly conservative is considered liberal -- and therefore anyone who is avowedly liberal is considered communist. This is not a little insane.

It is this logic also that allows conservative activists to paint Obama as socialist or communist. Anything even slightly left of center is immediately seen as extreme. Thereby ideas embraced by Republicans even a decade ago -- such as the individual mandate to buy health insurance -- are now seen as radical and a clear attempt to undermine the U.S. Constitution and replace freedom with socialism.

This is what happens when politics starts looking like a cult with litmus tests and loyalty oaths and periodic purges of anyone who dissents. Perspective is the first thing abandoned.

And when a member of your "team" says something extreme, it is either ignored or excused by invoking extreme statements from the other side of the ideological gulf -- therefore the conservative response to Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut was to try and make the debate about Bill Maher's past statements about Sarah Palin.

An insensitive but not entirely inaccurate statement by liberal pundit Hilary Rosen is suddenly seen as serving as a surrogate for the Obama campaign despite their immediate denunciations of it. Extending this logic, Mitt Romney will be held that responsible for anything extreme conservative talking heads say in this campaign.

Fundraising off extreme statements is just the latest innovation -- something even more cynical than anything Joe McCarthy might have tried. At least for now, West is not a new McCarthy. He's not a fearful force, but a fringe voice in Congress.

But the ratcheting up of rhetoric has been occurring for so long that we almost don't notice it anymore. This feeds the cycle of incitement that is polarizing our politics. It will only stop when members of the two parties start condemning extreme comments made by members of their own team. And if elected officials start to equate liberals with communists, it is time to break the glass in case of emergency, because we are losing any sense of perspective in American politics.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
updated 7:31 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Ruth Ben-Ghiat says WWI enshrined the enduring notion that words cannot adequately express the experience of combat -- that the veteran will often remain silent about the trauma of war.
updated 5:27 PM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Obama's Asia trip is his first chance since the midterms to show the power of presidency, Michael Green says.
updated 7:34 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Frida Ghitis asks why President Obama has written another letter to Iran's Supreme Leader about the nuclear deal.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT