What Were the Long-Term Consequences of McCarthyism?

McCarthyism’s direct effects were felt by those whose lives it destroyed, but it also created an atmosphere in which accusations are nearly as good as proof of wrongdoing, an atmosphere that still survives into the modern era. As of 2015, politicians still use “communist” and “socialist” as slurs against progressives.

Under the guise of hunting for Soviet spies, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his contemporaries managed to link almost any political group on the left with communism in some way, holding up even the most benign leftist organizations as tools of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy America. While the country’s rightward shift in response was temporary, the McCarthy era did create a change in the political lexicon. Previously, communist and socialist ideas were spoken of freely, while after the Red Scare, any politician linked to either of those labels could see his career disappear in an instant. Careers and lives were destroyed by what amounted in many cases to name-calling and innuendo without any real proof of anti-American activities or thought.

McCarthyism’s effects still resonate in the modern era, when using “socialist” or “communist” to describe a politician or policy can drive public opinion away. Even in the 21st century, when the Soviet Union is long gone and most formerly communist countries have shifted to capitalism, accusations of being sympathetic to the communist cause are still used as political attacks.