In today’s acerbic political environment, labels are constantly being placed on elected officials to define them as extreme, out-of-touch or just nuts.
Our colleagues at PolitiFact Oregon recently investigated one controversial label placed on several dozen members of Congress since it included two of that state’s representatives.
A Pennsylvania-based group called Sovereign Citizens United claimed on its website that members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are "socialists who are openly serving in the U.S. Congress." The 77-member caucus includes longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Atlanta, and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat.
The caucus is often characterized as liberal-leaning in news reports. But socialist?
The S-word is overwhelmingly considered a toxic label in American politics. Yet, it is used more frequently these days, most often as a way to demonize liberal politicians.
Socialism is the idea of the government controlling the entire means of production of goods and services for its citizens. That contrasts with liberalism in American politics -- the idea that the government should offer a wide array of programs to help citizens.
The group claimed it had proof to back up its claim, and its online posting was picked up by others. PolitiFact Oregon was interested because of the type of claim that was being made and that it was being circulated by several outlets in different parts of the country.
PolitiFact Oregon was unable to contact Sovereign Citizens United, but we had better luck. Sovereign Citizens United sent us about a dozen e-mails defending its claim.
"The Progressive Caucus in Congress WAS CREATED BY the Democratic Socialists of America," they wrote us in one e-mail. "Because of this tie, any member of Congress who is a member of the Progressive Caucus is indeed arguing with [sic] the Democratic Socialists of America."
A spokesman for Johnson wondered if Sovereign Citizens United was the same outfit that is occasionally busted for living in spacious vacant or foreclosed homes, because it believes it is immune to federal and state laws and that only people -- not banks -- can own land. So did we. News accounts refer to those suspects as "Sovereign Citizens." Sovereign Citizens United lists itself as a group attempting to stop the undermining of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights by "U.N. globalists." We couldn’t find any evidence this group was involved in any suspected criminal activity.
So what about the group’s statement concerning the congressmen and the caucus?
Sovereign Citizens United cited a KeyWiki article that claims the DSA helped create the caucus. The group sent us a link to a website with information the group says is evidence that the DSA created the caucus. The website, Sovereignty.net, says the DSA boasts the creation of the caucus.
Not true on both accounts, says Frank Llewellyn, the DSA’s outgoing national director. Brad Bauman, the caucus’ executive director, called the claim "categorically false."
"It was not started by any socialist organization. It was not started by any socialists,"Bauman said of the caucus, founded in 1991. "The fact that anyone would call into question [the caucus members’] patriotism is shocking to me."
The KeyWiki page has a link to an article on an obscure website that has one sentence that says the DSA helped organize the caucus.
The DSA has a four-page questions-and-answers section that says it works to "strengthen the [Democratic Party’s] left wing, represented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus." Sovereign Citizens United points to that quote as proof that the caucus is heavily influenced by the DSA.
"The Congressional Progressive Caucus is by and from the U.S. Socialist party through the DSA," they told us.
Llewellyn said that page is old, "a little ambiguous" and now probably wouldn’t reference the Democratic Party’s left wing. The DSA, which claims to have about 6,000 members, would prefer an alternative third party that supports its values. Llewellyn said some of its policy differences with the CPC include:
- The DSA supports larger reductions in military spending.
- The DSA wants to restore federal income tax rates to pre-Reagan administration levels, when they were much higher for the top earners.
Llewellyn said there are no members of Congress who are members of the DSA and he rolls his eyes at claims that President Barack Obama is a socialist.
"We have a banner that says ‘Obama is not a socialist, but we are,’ " Llewellyn said.
In 2009, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described Democratic Socialist, wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post arguing that no one else in Congress thinks similarly.
Spokespeople for Johnson and Lewis both rejected any claims to being socialists or members of the DSA.
Sovereign Citizens United believes it has evidence that shows the Congressional Progressive Caucus thinks like socialists and is under the thumb of the Democratic Socialists of America. The evidence is rather flimsy and, in some cases, bogus. The DSA doesn’t boast on its website that it created the caucus, as the sovereign group claims.
Like PolitiFact Oregon, we give this claim our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.