Defining Stalinism Down:

From a Rush Limbaugh interview of Vice-President Cheney:

Q One more, and that's the recess appointment of Sam Fox. Sam Fox is from my home state, and I know Sam Fox -- he's an immigrant, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, whose parents would have nothing -- when they died they had nothing. He is a totally self-created man, a great American. And he was treated horribly by Senator Kerry and others on that committee, simply because he had made a political donation. They essentially told him he did not have freedom of speech in this country, until he would apologize, until he would go up to Kerry and apologize for supporting the Swift Boats. Now the President has recess-appointed him. And of course, the Democrats have said they're going to investigate this and going to look into this.

This is the kind of move that garners a lot of support from the people in the country. This shows the administration willing to engage these people and not allow them to get away with this kind of -- well, my term -- you don't have to accept it -- Stalinist behavior from these people on that committee.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, you're dead on, Rush. I know Sam well. He's a good friend of mine and has been for many years. I think he's a great appointment. He'll do a superb job as our Ambassador to Belgium. I was delighted when the President made the recess appointment. He clearly has that authority under the Constitution. And you're right, John Kerry basically shot it down.

Is that what Stalin is famous for? Using his constitutional power as an elected representative to decline his consent to political appointments based on his political disagreement with the appointer or appointee -- or, for that matter, based on his desire to retaliate against a political actor, by blocking political payback for that actor? If Stalinism had consisted chiefly of this, Stalinism wouldn't be the pejorative that it rightly is today.

Even if you read Stalinism broadly to refer to any attempt to impose political orthodoxy -- which seems to me an abuse of the pejorative, just as it is an abuse of the term Nazi to use it to refer to, say, any militarism or police enforcement one finds excessive -- it's not sensible or fair to use it in fields where political decisionmaking is routine, and routinely practiced by both sides.

It's not Stalinism for the Bush Administration to decline to appoint its political adversaries, or to choose an appointee because of his past political support. An Administration quite properly looks to political affiliation in its appointment decisions. Bush's decision to appoint Fox rather than, say, John Kerry is not "[telling Kerry] he did not have freedom of speech in this country"; political appointments properly turn on the content of the appointee's past political speech. Likewise, it's not Stalinism for Democratic Senators to decline to confirm their political adversaries.

Such political tit-for-tat may sometimes be unwise, or counterproductive. But it cheapens what should be a serious pejorative, insults the memory of Stalin's victims, and undermines public consciousness of Stalin's crimes, to use "Stalinism" to label political hardball in a historically (and bipartisanly) political arena.

Thanks to Mark Kleiman and Obsidian Wings for the pointer. I should also note that Limbaugh apparently misspoke about Sam Fox's being an immigrant -- he's the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, but he himself was born in the U.S.