Not too many years ago in Texas, a right wing operative told the mainstream press I was a communist. Even in Texas the accusation (based solely on my mocking of ’60s John Birchers in an old news story) was laughed at. Nobody’d seen a communist for a really long time. Around Texas there were more alien abduction reports than sightings of communists or socialists.

Lately, though, Republicans here and around the country are warning that there are socialist aliens among us, dangerous aliens probing our vulnerable parts and threatening to destroy the American way of life. John McCain and Sarah Palin say Barack Obama is one. In McCain and Palin’s America, there are now two choices. You can be 1) a fake plumber; 2) a socialist.

What’s up with this? Two words. No, three words. Big. Insurance. Lobbyists. There are a lot of insurance lobbyists on McCain’s staff. With polls showing most Americans want and need health care reform, the health insurance lobby is desperate. So, they begin their campaign against reform by raising the specter of socialism – accusations that can be delivered by television ads paid for with federal matching fund (public) dollars.

The health insurance industry’s dirty secret, that all its profits come from the denial of claims and exclusion of coverage, is a little less secret than it used to be. If millions of dollars can be used now to begin to label reform plans as "socialism," Big Insurance will have a head start in the 2009 Congress.

Of course, the term "socialized medicine" has long been used by the insurance industry and the really stupid doctors who’ve allowed themselves to become slaves to an industry that forces them to deliver poorer and poorer care. Actually, doctors started it way back in the 1920s, before the insurance industry really got into the health business. Until the 1940s, insurance execs couldn’t figure out how to make money in health. They could insure property, because everyone’s house didn’t burn down. They could sell life insurance and earn a lot from investments they made with premiums before their policyholders died. But health? Everybody gets sick. Everybody dies. Where’s the profit in that? (As it turns out, there is a lot of money in denying health care.)

When, in the early 20th Century, medical knowledge and training led to a wide disparity between rich and poor in health care, many reformers began advocating for some sort of solution. But these were the years of the Red scares. Industry barons labeled all solutions communist or socialist. Better dead than Red.

It’s even cooler that McCain and Palin can get the socialism meme out there without really having to talk about health care, which might raise suspicions. Instead, they base the accusation on Obama’s rather bland description of the decades-old American progressive tax system. Obama used the phrase "spread the wealth" when he answered Joe-Who’s-Really-Sam-The-Plumber-Who’s-Not-A-Plumber.

McCain spits out the words "spread the wealth" with the same derision he used to mock women’s health in the last debate. McCain uses scare quotes a lot.

Fear of socialism is suddenly making a comeback. Here an excerpt from an email I got a couple of days ago. It’s being forwarded by employees of big corporations.

Notice to All Employees

As of November 5, 2008, when President Obama is officially elected into office, our company will instill a few new policies which are in keeping with his new, inspiring issues of change and fairness:

1. All salespeople will be pooling their sales and bonuses into a common pool that will be divided equally between all of you. This will serve to give those of you who are underachieving a "fair shake."

2. All low level workers will be pooling their wages, including overtime, into a common pool, dividing it equally amongst yourselves. This will help those who are "too busy for overtime" to reap the rewards from those who have more spare time and can work extra hours.

3. All top management will now be referred to as "the government." We will not participate in this "pooling" experience because the law doesn’t apply to us.

4. The "government" will give eloquent speeches to all employees every week, encouraging it’s workers to continue to work hard "for the good of all."

Never mind the irony of such a message coming from business people who are directly or indirectly lining their pockets with taxpayer bailout cash. On it’s face the socialism described by this mocking email is just silly.

Except it’s having its effect. I called a few conservative friends over the last few days to ask them about this newfound fear of socialism. They are all taking it seriously. They don’t really know why it’s bad. Just is. Their minds are closed to the fact that wasteful spending by the private health insurance business is far great than the most wasteful government-managed program.

Socialism is just a monster that was under their beds when they were kids.

And they find a strange, infantile comfort in making themselves scared of the dark once again.