The Redbaiting of Rep. Karen Bass Is Absurd

Rep. Karen Bass is no socialist, but she's hung around a few of us in the past. Because of this, as her name was floated for Biden's vice presidency, she's been subjected to McCarthyist-style smears. We on the Left have to clearly and loudly stand against these attacks — they’re designed to make socialism politically beyond the pale.

Rep. Karen Bass speaks at a House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. (Kevin Dietsch-Pool / Getty Images)

“I’m not a socialist. I’m not a communist. I’ve belonged to one party my entire life and that’s the Democratic Party and I’m a Christian.”

If one were to read this quote in isolation, without attribution, or further details, one might assume it was from McCarthy-era America. It might harken to a time when official government bodies hauled people accused of the high crime of being leftists before inquisitors who would then probe their political leanings, searching for the dreaded heresy of left-wing associations or sympathy that would lead them to be excommunicated from civil society.

But that quote was not uttered during the McCarthy hearings or before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or during the early days of the Cold War. They came from Rep. Karen Bass when speaking to the US media on August 3, 2020.

A few weeks ago, most Americans had probably not heard of Bass. Bass has, to the surprise of many, found herself on the shortlist for Joe Biden’s vice presidential selection. The California congresswoman is joined on this list, according to multiple reports in the media, by Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, and Susan Rice, a longtime fixture of the US national security establishment (and subject of bizarre right-wing Benghazi conspiracy theories).

Bass, who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, does not come from the national security establishment or law enforcement. Instead, her background is in community organizing and progressive politics. In a development that is equally unexpected as her status as vice presidential finalist, Bass has also emerged as a unity pick.

Delegates from both the Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns have rallied behind her. Sanders surrogate Nina Turner has called for Bass to be selected. So has Dolores Huerta, a labor organizer who helped cofound the National Farm Workers Association (and did not back Sanders in either 2016 or 2020).

Biden’s VP pick appears to be imminent, so the question of whether or not it will be Bass will soon be answered. But the floating of her name has led to a revival of an old line of attack that will unfortunately be relevant long beyond this campaign cycle: red-baiting.

“Soft on Communism”

The cascade of red-baiting started by pointing out Bass’s ties to Cuba. At age nineteen, in the 1970s she traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade to build houses in Cuba. The Venceremos Brigade was founded by Students for a Democratic Society, who sent members to participate in Cuba’s sugarcane harvest.

The brigade still exists today, carrying out Cuban solidarity work. Bass visited the island repeatedly over the years. One of her most recent trips was in 2015 with Secretary of State John Kerry as part of the Obama administration’s limited rapprochement with Cuba. The media has also seized on comments she made after Fidel Castro’s death, in which she referred to him as “comandante en jefe” (commander in chief).

Bass has denied charges she is a “Castro sympathizer,” and repeatedly stated that Cuba lacks political freedom. She has argued that she sought to help the Cuban people, and that the United States should have normalized relations with the island nation only ninety miles from the US, which includes a free exchange of ideas and people.

Bass also told Meet the Press that in the last twenty years she was interested in Cuban doctors and pharmaceuticals. Cuba trains doctors around the world, including some US doctors, free of charge, and Bass has been recruiting those Cuban-trained doctors to work in America’s inner cities.

She mentioned that she lost a parent to both diabetes and lung cancer; Cuba has developed promising medicines to treat these illnesses, and Bass believes they should be tested in the United States so that Americans may benefit from Cuban medical innovation.

These are hardly controversial positions. Nearly 60 percent of Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba. Even the Chamber of Commerce, hardly a communist front organization, thinks the US embargo on Cuba should be lifted.

But from the media coverage of Bass, you wouldn’t know just how mainstream her positions were. The fact that Bass is on record criticizing Cuba’s record on political freedom does not overcome the apparently unpardonable sin of praising Cuba’s objectively true achievements on healthcare or education.

Much of the coverage starts from the premise that this is a political liability so grave that it may cost Biden the election. TV pundits like Chuck Todd have taken to grilling Bass about having been a “soft view on Castro.” Far from being neutral, this type of media environment fuels the witch hunt and creates self-fulfilling prophecies.

The attacks on Bass for supporting normalized relations with Cuba expose blatant double standards. Saudi Arabia has long been one of the world’s most repressive governments, is involved in a brutal war in Yemen that has seen atrocity after atrocity committed against civilians, and has been implicated in terrorism around the world, including allegations of indirect support for the 9/11 terror attacks. Yet support for Saudi Arabia is all but sacrosanct among politicians in both parties.

The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen opined that Bass was in fact the beneficiary of a double standard, as no Republican congressperson who supported apartheid South Africa as a youth should be vetted as vice president.

This is a jarringly historically illiterate claim, first because the claim that a regime founded on white supremacy and dedicated to elevating a tiny minority of white people to power over a vast majority of black people is not the same as a country that threw off the shackles of corrupt, unequal dictatorship and made significant strides in many key areas of social need despite being constantly under attack by the most powerful country on earth.

But it’s also wrong on its basic argument that no one who supported apartheid South Africa could be vice president. Dick Cheney was certainly not young when as a member of Congress he voted against a resolution opposing freedom for Nelson Mandela. It did not stop him from becoming the most powerful vice president the nation has ever seen.

And far from a past indiscretion, Cheney has maintained to the present his vote was correct as “the ANC [African National Congress] was then viewed as a terrorist organization” — a position was hardly an outlier on the Right.

Olsen’s comments are also particularly appalling for two other historical reasons. First, anti-communism was repeatedly used to attack the ANC and the struggle against apartheid. Second, Cuba contributed to the defeat of apartheid.

It was for this reason that Nelson Mandela upon being released from Robben Island made his first international visit to Fidel Castro, who he thanked profusely for his support. The Cuban Revolution, per Mandela, was “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” Would liberal politicians and writers attack Mandela for being “soft on communism”?

Some of Her Best Friends Are Communists

The red-baiting campaign against Bass escalated when it emerged that she eulogized Oneil Marion Cannon in the Congressional Record. It is part of a deliberate strategy to impose political costs on those who have been to close to the Left.

Cannon was a Southern California activist who Bass’s eulogy mentions was a mentor to her. Bass mentions Cannon’s role in teaching the printing trade and fighting segregation. Her comments do not mention Cannon’s membership in the Communist Party, and it is unclear if she was aware of them.

Los Angeles city councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who worked with both Bass and Cannon in the 1990s, claims to have been unaware of Cannon’s communist politics and claims that most people in the community did not associate Cannon with communism.

As Harris-Dawson rightly observed, “In Southern California, what you find is a lot of people in activism now were part of more radical things in the ’70s and prior to that. They were the ones who pushed for desegregation and pushed back against police abuse.”

Politico didn’t find this claim plausible, implying that while this may be the case in California, it was not the case elsewhere. But this, too, is wrong. Cannon died in 2017 just a few days short of his hundredth birthday. For much of his life, being a Communist in California was not necessarily easier than anywhere else.

HUAC’s most infamous alumni, Richard Nixon, was elected in California. Noted anti-communist and ferocious opponent of civil liberties Ronald Reagan also came from the Sunshine State. As California governor, he unconstitutionally tried to remove Angela Davis from her teaching position due to membership in the party. And California had its very own committee on “un-American actives.”

Radical anti-capitalists, be they communists, socialists, or Trotskyists, have played an outsized role in the struggle for American democracy. It was these radicals who were among the first to struggle against apartheid and lynching in the Jim Crow south, who believed every American had a right to decent pay and unions, who argued that the Bill of Rights should mean expansive democratic and political rights, and who viewed sending working class youth to die in wars meant to subjugate and dominate poor people across the globe as an injustice.

Whether or not Bass herself held radical views, as someone fighting for a multiracial working-class community plagued by government neglect and police violence, she would almost certainly has struggled aside radicals, even Communists. Hysterical anti-radicalism like the kind Bass has been subjected to erases this history.

It’s Not Actually About Karen Bass

Karen Bass is no political outsider. Before serving four terms in Congress, Bass was the Speaker of the California State Assembly. She was the first black woman to hold such a position in any state.

Currently, she chairs the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, and the United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. She also is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Bass is far from a socialist. But she is undeniably a progressive. Prior to entering electoral politics, she organized against police brutality and the 1994 crime bill. Looking at the crack epidemic ravaging her community, she argued that drug use was a public health issue and opposed the common sense of the day that increasingly draconian criminal penalties were the solution.

In Congress, she is a proponent of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. In her role on the Judiciary Committee, she has repeatedly used FBI oversight hearings to question FBI director Christopher Wray about the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremism” threat assessment and its increased surveillance of black activists.

Bass has supported prohibiting US military aid to Israel from being used to detain Palestinian children and opposed Israel’s attempts to annex parts of Occupied Palestinian Territories. While she did not join with seventeen Democrats in voting against a resolution condemning the Palestinian-led Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, she voted “present” as opposed to voting in favor of the resolution.

She defended Rep. Ilhan Omar from attacks, arguing she’s been unfairly singled out. She also was one of the driving figures behind the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which limits (but does not eliminate) qualified immunity, bars choke holds, and “no-knock” warrants, prohibits racial profiling, and seeks to check police militarization.

Bass is far from perfect — after all, as she told the media, she isn’t a socialist. She has opposed calls for defunding the police. She also cosponsored a resolution supporting US military aid to Israel. Bass also made bizarrely laudatory statements about the Church of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard.

One can certainly debate whether Bass would be a good vice presidential candidate, how socialists should orient themselves to the 2020 presidential election, or whether Biden’s vice presidential search is something worthwhile for the Left to weigh in at all. But regardless of where one stands on Bass or the Biden campaign, the Left must oppose the shameless red-baiting of her.

To allow Bass, a former speaker of the California State Assembly and current Congressional Black Caucus chairperson, to be successfully tarred as too radical isn’t just unfair to her — it’s to allow for the dramatic constriction of our political discourse.

After all, while Bass is the one under direct attack in this incident, those of us who are socialists of all stripes are the ones whose associations, organizing, and basic belief in the possibility and necessity of a better world are the ones whose beliefs and actions are being deemed beyond the pale.

The attacks on Bass come at a time when left-wing ideas are gaining support. Millions voted for Bernie Sanders, a nationwide uprising against police brutality is underway, and socialist groups like the Democratic Socialist of America have seen a surge in membership. Historically, periods of repression have followed the ascendence of the Left. Making Bass off limits does the same for activists in the insurgent socialist movement. Of course, that’s exactly what many of Bass’s critics are rooting for.