Discover more from The Column
Progressive Red-Baiting is Still Red-Baiting
There's nothing new or clever about framing domestic social policy as a way to win some assumed and inevitable Cold War. Nor is it progressive to accuse Republicans of being CCP sleeper agents.
Every time a “progressive” Democrat frames humane social policy as good because it’ll help us win some assumed and inevitable Cold War with China, a part of my soul dies. You can see, in your mind, the moment they think they cracked the Da Vinci Code: Their eyes light up, their mouth cracks a slight, mischievous grin—they’re going to own the Republicans by insisting their preferred policy is Actually the More Patriotic One. Hey, what if this progressive policy is an important component of winning a great power competition? President Xi sits around his compound, goons by his side, examining big TV monitors playing MSNBC and pounding his desk as he proclaims, “Goddamn it, early childhood education! What will these blasted democrats think of next?”
Fueling a new Cold War “from the left” is still fueling a new Cold War, and cheap anti-China posturing in the service of free pre-K or universal healthcare is still xenophobia appealing to voters’ worst instincts, no matter the nominally progressive policy goals. It’s a trend that has taken off even more in the past year, as a hardened bipartisan Cold War consensus emerges, and it’s more than just empty cringe: It can, in many ways, be actively dangerous. The old lefty adage of No War But Class War doesn’t have an asterisk saying, “Unless that war is a cold one, against another nuclear power, and can maybe shore up domestic support for some paltry social welfare programs.”
One of the worst offenders of this rhetoric is “progressive” congressman and Ro Khanna. Despite saying in a February interview that we need a “thoughtful strategy on China, which doesn't just default to a new Cold War paradigm that fuels anti-Asian xenophobia,” Khanna can’t talk about any half-way decent social program without positioning it as part of shoring up the ability of the United States to “take on” China. Khanna was an initial co-sponsor and one of the biggest boosters of the bipartisan “Endless Frontier Act,” which aims to spend tens of billions of dollars to enshrine a zero-sum competitive posture toward China. Though Khanna’s initial House version was added to a rebranded and expanded “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” bill, the basic “We Must Beat China” sales pitch remained, spurring over 60 anti-war groups to write an open letter opposing the Cold War framing, and calling out Khanna’s Endless Frontier Act by name:
Worryingly, both political parties are increasingly latching onto a dangerously short-sighted worldview that presents China as the pivotal existential threat to U.S. prosperity and security and counsels zero-sum competition as the primary response. This narrative is not only growing in our foreign policy discourse, but also is increasingly being used to justify widely popular domestic policies, like those in the Endless Frontier Act, that provide broad social and industrial investments. Anti-China framing for such initiatives is not only politically unnecessary; it is harmful, as it inevitably feeds racism, violence, xenophobia, and white nationalism.
It’s not an uncommon frame for Khanna, who routinely goes on Fox News to pitch ostensibly progressive policy as helping combat the assumed-because-it’s-Fox News-to-be-obviously-evil country of China. Using anti-China framing, Khanna has defended funding the World Health Organization, funding education, and funding green energy technology. Remarkably, Fox News keeps inviting him on to do this shtick, probably because the network has an ideological interest in reinforcing Cold War premises and mostly views Khanna’s Progressive Twist as a cute and harmless afterthought.
The Biden administration, too, has caught the Progressive Values Combating China bug. Like Khanna, the administration can’t seem to pitch policy without explaining how it will help America “win the 21st century.” The D.C. consultancy brain trust has determined this is the main line—and will be for the next few years: Democrats are the True China Hawks because we understand that roads, education programs, and rural broadband will help us win some soft power war against China. These policies will primarily not be sold to the American public as good for the poor and vulnerable as such, or part of a broader social welfare Great Society effort by our government, but simply, another chess piece in our upcoming, decades-long global war against the Orient.
The most unhinged examples of late are the campaign ads and writing output of self-proclaimed “populist Democrat” Lucas Kunce, who is running for Senate in Missouri for the seat not occupied by Josh Hawley—who Kunce ostensibly opposes but sounds just like 80% of the time. “It can be hard to tell [Kunce and Hawley] apart,” Politico noted in its puffy profile of Kunce earlier this week.
Here’s one of several red baiting ads Kunce aired on Fox News this past month.
This is simply a rebranded version of the DCCC and big Democratic funders’ strategy in 2018 of running as many ex-military and ex-spook candidates as possible, wrapping them in the flag, and having them go around accusing Republicans of being disloyal subjects and secretly doing the bidding of Russia (which itself is a variation of the Republicans’ decades-long strategy of accusing liberals of being in league with Iran, Russia, the Soviet Union, Cuba, or Venezuela). Nothing Kunce is doing is particularly original, much less “populist.” He’s just taking a side in a petty civil war between different, sometimes overlapping, bourgeois factions: those with financial ties to China, typically real estate or high finance, versus the national security industrial complex, whose stock index rises every time Great Competition fear-mongering takes center stage. It’s Mike Bloomberg versus Raytheon, some low-level real estate developers versus Peter Theil, and it’s not an inspiring or class-driven conflict. It’s just shadow boxing from two powerful modes of capital accumulation. That this stupid shit passes for brilliant populism is a testament to how narrow our concept of class conflict is, and how thoroughly demagogy over a foreign enemies is baked into our politics.
In his ads and campaign rhetoric, Kunce seems incapable or unwilling to make his case that the rich are our class enemy as such—whether they are American, Chinese, Armenian, or Swedish. The wealthy are the enemy of the working class, not the wealthy of any particular country. And to the extent the wealthy of a particular country are the enemy of the American working class, it’s far more likely to be American wealthy—who, outside of their being “owned by China,” are mysteriously absent in Kunce’s TV spots. These rapacious corporations and their Republican allies are not sinister because they have undue wealth and influence, they’re sinister because they have undue wealth and influence as agents of the Evil Chinese. Why the Spooky Foreign Influence Element to the criticism at all? If not to appeal to lizard brain racism.
It’s the primary topic he talks about, quickly becoming the essence of his campaign.
“We have a real message that speaks to you whether you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Mr. Kunce told the Washington Times last week. “This is not a left-right campaign. This is a top-bottom campaign about changing who has power.”
So if it’s not a “left” campaign then it’s something else? “Populist,” whatever that means anymore. Kunce, who ran for Missouri state representative at age 24 fresh out of Yale as a pro-life “conservative Democrat,” is committed to the whole Suspender-Slapping Simple Country Marine bit, constantly evoking his military service as a reason why he’s Authentic and a True Patriot, unlike his enemies, who are all some variation of Manchurian Candidate.
To be clear: Kunce has issued extremely solid anti-war, pro-worker statements. Unlike his cynical Republican counterpart Josh Hawley, Kunce does vocally support unions, the PRO Act, and Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal, and he traveled down the Bessemer, Ala. to support striking Amazon workers. He is not an outright faux populist hypocrite like Hawley, which is what makes his cheap flag-humping so much more depressing. He’s familiar with the language of class war, but apparently unaware of—or unconcerned with—how rhetoric about “aiding the enemy” and wild accusations of secret Chinese agents fuels the military machine he supposedly opposes.
Some will argue that it’s simply the context of Kunce’s run: that he’s trying to win over an increasingly red state against a savvy Missouri Republican Party that speaks in the language of the working man but, in reality, engages in business relationships with the very same Chinese government it supposedly loathes. Perhaps in theory there is some way to make this point, but Kunce isn’t doing this: He’s arguing that merely appearing on the state TV of an “enemy” is an act of treason, “bowing down” to the government that runs the TV outlet—a totally unhinged, right-wing premise that’s been used against Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
His ad, entitled, “Aiding the Enemy,” raises the question: Who exactly is the enemy in this ad? It’s not American billionaires and corporations which remain unnamed outside of those sullied by the CCP—it’s “China,” which we are simply supposed to accept is the “enemy” of working poor Missourians. Why? Says who? Isn’t this a premise supposed progressives should be challenging rather than mindlessly reinforcing?
Kunce and Khanna, of course, aren’t the first to attempt this gambit. Liberals used it quite often during the Cold War. In 1948 and 1949, President Truman repeatedly pitched universal healthcare to skeptical organs of capital as essential to defeating the Soviet Union in an inevitable World War 3. As Drew Pearson reported at the time:
A physically fit nation not only is essential to economic prosperity, but is our first line of military defense, President Truman told a group of medical, labor and civic leaders who called to discuss the administration’s pay-as-you-go health-insurance program...We cannot afford to be handicapped as in the last war, when “thirty to forty percent of our draftees were rejected on medical grounds…
“A great many of those rejections were due to lack of medical treatment in childhood,” declared the President. It is the basic responsibility of the government, he added, to provide our children with the medical care needed to make them healthy citizens.
Needless to say this pitch didn’t work, because capitalists aren’t dupes who can be tricked into supporting progressive policies against their economic interests on the altar of patriotism. This is likely because patriotism, for corporate America and its bought and paid for politicians, is a fake thing that doesn’t actually move institutions that can and currently do profit off of the working class remaining precarious and exploited.
Kunce deliberately conflates class war with a Cold War. We are told that “Missouri Republicans” have “sold you out” (good line!) by buying up farmland and selling it to big corporations (hell yeah!) which we are then told are in bed with “our enemy” China. (Huh? What?) If these Republicans had taken over small farms and sold them to Canadian firms, or to the Koch Brothers, or to some other super rich asshole born and raised in Missouri, how would this make any difference? The point is class war, not a sneaky Chinese conspiracy.
It’s also worth noting that Kunce’s recurring implication that China is driving the buying up of small farms is entirely untrue. Missouri, like a dozen other states, banned foreign-owned corporations from buying farmland in 1978 but lifted the cap from 0% to 1% in 2013, which is what allowed Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods to buy up the pork land in question. China-based corporations are not even a top four foreign owner of Missouri farmland, with Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Italy taking the top spots, according to a 2019 federal report. Estimates vary, but the most highly cited number of Chinese farmland ownership in Missouri is 40,000 acres out of 350,000 foreign owned acres, or about 11 percent of all foreign owned land and 0.01% of total Missouri farmland.
China is a very small player in “foreign ownership” of U.S. farmland in general, yet mysteriously, almost exclusively who Kunce talks about when discussing the issue. According to the conservative think tank CSIS, “Canadian investors hold the largest share of [U.S. farmland], at 29 percent, with the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom collectively owning another 33 percent. The remaining 38 percent is held by entities from almost a hundred other countries. Although Congress has become increasingly concerned about Chinese land purchases, investors from China currently own only a small fraction of this land, at 191,652 acres (0.05 percent of the total).” Another 2019 federal report puts the number at less than 0.02 percent, less than Cayman Islands.
But watching Kunce’s ads one would think the CCP is gobbling up all of Missouri’s small farms and is the primary reason corporations are consolidating their hold over America’s food supply and driving out mom-and-pop pork ranchers. One can debate if ANY Chinese ownership of farmland is bad (after all, we are told, unlike Germany and Canada, they are “the enemy”). But it’s clear Kunce isn’t here to soberly debate National Security implications of “foreign ownership” of farmland—he’s here to use spooky images of his political opponents over CCP imagery to frighten and confuse old white people
This type of nativist posture creeps into a lot of left spaces and is worth nothing in its own right. A lot of criticism of “foreign influence” rests on these fundamentally xenophobic assumptions. In this blog I've touched on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, funding CNN and VICE respectively. But the problem with this money wasn’t that it was “foreign”—it was that it was from highly concentrated wealth unconcerned with human rights or the needs of working people, in contrast to the stated values of the media organizations themselves. But this would also be true if they took money from wealthy Americans or the U.S. government, all agents acting against the interests of the global poor.
A similar framing pops up around the influence of Israel on American politics, and can easily veer into antisemitism. The problem with Zionist or pro-Israel donors is that they’re imperialists subjugating Palestinians, not that they’re “foreign.” Indeed, Zionism, as an ideology, is as American as apple pie, and the vast bulk of Zionists in the world are American. The “foreignness” of the influence isn’t the problem. And reverting back to this framing is deliberately pandering to nativist instincts. Whether it’s the Koch Brothers, Saudi royalty, Bank of America, Chinese foreign investment firms, Amazon, Elon Musk, or a Swedish sovereign wealth fund, the issue is concentrated wealth corrupting our political and media process to suppress the working class, not that the passport of those doing it.
“It’s not about xenophobia or fueling a Cold War,” some of the Progressive Tough on China crowd will claim, but about values. About American “liberal democracy” versus “capitalist authoritarianism.” It’s still not clear how the country that ranks first out of 195 countries in rate of incarceration and 4th out of 195 countries in inequality gets to arbitrate who is and isn’t “authoritarian capitalists.” And I suppose this dichotomy feels true-ish in some vague emotive or academic sense, but it’s important to note this is literally the exact same argument advanced by neoconservatives post-9/11: This isn’t a war on Islam or Muslims per se, it’s about liberal values and democracy. But guess who ended up dying and suffering? Muslims. And guess what it didn’t have to do with: liberalism and democracy.
What iteration of White Man’s Burden in the past 200 years wasn't framed as defending ostensibly race-neutral high minded values? This isn’t to say America’s rising Cold War against China will become hot any time soon, but as we know from previous Cold Wars, they can become hot quickly, or fuel proxy wars, economic sanctions, and military expansion—which the U.S. has long had underway. One cannot say they support demilitarization and deescalation while engaging in moralistic sloganeering and zero-sum framing. To say nothing of the fact that the U.S.—which still bombs a half dozen countries, funds Israel’s various war crimes and occupations, is not meaningfully fighting for the sharing of Covid vaccine recipes with the Global South, runs internment camps at our border, and flaunts dozens of international agreements—has any leg to stand on as the supposed promoter of “anti-authoritarian” “rules-based order.” Progressives should focus on cleaning up our own house before we jockey for some type of “inclusive patriotism” that’s simply just a rebranded version of neoconservative Great Competition framing with social welfare packaging.