Asked by a reporter on Wednesday whether he identifies as a socialist, Ben Jealous gave a long-winded but generally on-point response implying he does not. Asked a second time for clarification, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Maryland gave a much shorter response: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
You can guess which of the two answers people noticed. The Washington Free Beacon posted video of the exchange with a headline declaring, “Ben Jealous explodes at reporter over being asked if he’s a socialist,” and Fox News likewise blared, “Ben Jealous snaps at reporter for socialism question.” Outlets like the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun went with a less active verb but still highlighted the profanity: “Ben Jealous drops an f-bomb.” The GOP quickly tried to capitalize: A top official at the Republican Governors Association called Jealous “unhinged,” and a spokesman for his GOP opponent, Gov. Larry Hogan, lamented that the curse word had lowered “the level of political discourse in our state and in our country.” Jealous quickly apologized, which kept the perpetual-motion machine moving. “Ben Jealous apologizes for dropping f-bomb when asked if he’s a socialist,” announced a CBS News affiliate in Baltimore.
Even this litany of headlines fails to fully capture just how far and fast this episode spun out of control given how it began. Below is the full transcript of the exchange between Jealous and the Post’s Erin Cox, who was asking the candidate to respond to comments Hogan made in a recent New York Times interview and charges leveled against him by the RGA in a misleading attack ad. (That ad cherry-picks the first half of a June remark by Jealous, who went into the tech sector after his time as the head of the NAACP: “Go ahead, call me a socialist. That doesn’t change the fact I’m a venture capitalist.”) After Jealous’ initial 90-odd-second answer, Cox did her journalistic due diligence to remove any and all doubt.
Reporter: Governor Hogan and the RGA have made a significant amount of effort and investment in trying to paint you as a socialist—they’ve actually called you a “socialist” and a “far-left socialist” and [claimed] that the state “can’t afford” you. What is your response to, first, the term socialist, whether you embrace it, identify [with] it to any degree, and secondly, the charge about whether the state can afford you.
Jealous: You know, I about fell out of my chair when I read in the Times this weekend that Hogan was out there calling me names. And then it occurred to me, him calling me a “far-left socialist” is what the Tea Party called President Obama, it’s what Barry Goldwater called Martin Luther King. And when you see conservatives like Hogan name-calling, you realize that they’re scared. That they’re frankly afraid of the change that all of our families need—we need a more inclusive and robust economy. Now what I am is a venture capitalist. And what I do is invest in growing businesses. You can go talk to Jess Gartner at—down in Baltimore City, whose company Allovue, she’ll tell you, has benefited a lot more from my work as a venture capitalist than anything that Governor Hogan has done as governor. The reality is that when it comes to building our economy this governor has been lazy and we’re all now paying a price for it. We are dead last in the region as far as growth—we’re dead last as far as wage growth. We’ve seen health care costs surge on his watch, as he’s been part of the Republican effort to undermine Obamacare. And when I’m governor, we’ll turn things around and we’ll do it by investing in our small businesses, by pushing everybody we can into Obamacare, and doing whatever it takes to get a better deal on health care for the people of our state.
Reporter: Not to put too fine of a point on it, but do you identify with the term socialist?
Jealous: Are you fucking kidding me? Is that a fine enough point?
Reporter: Thank you, sir.
Jealous: All right, thank you.
Sure, most people can agree that Jealous would have been better off keeping his response PG and simply answering the question with a yes or no. But you can watch the video and see him chuckle after he finishes, making it clear he was not swearing at Cox so much as expressing frustration at being cast as a socialist. As part of his apology, Jealous also offered up the unambiguous type of answer Cox had been looking for. “I’m a venture capitalist, not a socialist,” he tweeted. “I have never referred to myself as a socialist nor would I govern as one.”
The whole mess obscures the far more interesting part of this, which is that Jealous, a chief surrogate for Bernie Sanders two years ago, is so adamantly rejecting the socialist label. Jealous has been consistent on that point, even as the term continues to gain traction on the left, particularly among younger Americans.
Given the term’s amorphous nature today—Sanders, the most well-known “democratic socialist” in the country, isn’t all that socialist by traditional standards—Jealous and other proud progressives like him have the luxury of defining the term however they want and then embracing it under that definition or rejecting it.
Jealous is calling for Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and tuition-free college funded by ending mass incarceration. His progressive bona fides are not in doubt. And he made clear in the primary that he believes the best way to defeat Hogan, an extremely popular Republican in a blue state, is by running to the left as a way to mobilize disaffected liberals, especially voters of color. And yet here Jealous is reinforcing the assumption baked into the GOP attack and, to a lesser degree, Cox’s question: that socialism, however defined, is a dirty word. That makes a certain type of sense given that Republicans have long used the term to smear anyone and anything they deem insufficiently conservative. And it was Sanders’ embrace of the term that many pundits and politicos used to discount his chances in 2016.
Still, Jealous’ full-throated rejection puts him at odds with Sanders, who has endorsed his campaign, and with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left’s newest hero, both of whom are eager to erase the word’s stigma. It’s a question more about politics than policy, but branding exercises matter in elections, and as spontaneous as Jealous’ profanity may have been, his rejection is a deliberate decision. That’s far more important than his uttering the F-word.