McCarthyism is a term used to describe the political practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without adequate evidence.
The term is named after Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who became known for his aggressive tactics in investigating alleged communists in the 1950s.
McCarthyism is often associated with the period of time known as the “Red Scare,” when the fear of communist infiltration in the United States was at its peak.
During the Red Scare, McCarthy and his supporters used a variety of tactics to investigate and expose supposed communists.
These included using the power of congressional committees to subpoena witnesses and demand that they provide evidence of their loyalty to the United States. Those who refused to cooperate or who were unable to provide satisfactory answers to the committee’s questions were often blacklisted or otherwise punished.
In addition to using congressional committees, McCarthy and his supporters also relied on the media to spread their message and to drum up support for their cause. They often used sensational headlines and fear-mongering tactics to create the impression that there was a widespread communist threat in the United States.
As a result, many people who were suspected of being communists or of having communist sympathies were publicly humiliated and ostracized.
Despite the apparent success of McCarthy’s investigations in the early 1950s, his tactics eventually led to his downfall.
In 1954, McCarthy’s aggressive questioning of a U.S. Army lawyer during a televised hearing proved to be his undoing. The lawyer, Joseph Welch, famously responded to McCarthy’s accusations by asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” The exchange was widely seen as a turning point in the McCarthy era, and the senator’s popularity and influence began to decline soon afterward.
The televised interaction played in Welch’s favor, sinking McCarthy in public opinion. McCarthy’s image was further damaged when the journalist Edward R. Murrow ran an investigative piece on McCarthy and his methods on the CBS show, “See It Now.”
Murrow concluded the show with a brief editorial, a call to conscience which read, in part:
The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Today, the term McCarthyism is often used to refer to any situation in which baseless accusations are used to attack an individual or group’s reputation.
It is also used to describe the use of fear-mongering and smear tactics to gain political advantage.
Examples of “McCarthyism” in a sentence
- The senator’s McCarthyism tactics were widely criticized for their lack of evidence and fairness.
- The rise of McCarthyism during the Red Scare led to the blacklisting of many artists and intellectuals.
- The current administration has been accused of McCarthyism for their efforts to identify and punish supposed disloyal members within the government.