This story has already gotten a lot of comment action in Headlines, but, given all the talk about Allen West for vice president, it seems to merit a full-fledged post, as well.

At a town hall event in Florida yesterday, West warned his constituents that he’s “heard” that as many as 80 House Democrats are members of the Communist Party. He didn’t name names, but the House has just 190 Democrats, so, if West is right, that means about 42 percent of House Ds consider themselves communists.

In this post, I want to explore two questions: (1) How plausible is it that such a sizable percentage of Democrats in the House of Representatives really prefer a centrally planned economy to a free market economy? and (2) Was it politically savvy or politically stupid of Allen West to make this statement?

The answer to the first question is easier than the second. West’s “80” number might seem a little high, but it’s not hard to believe that, out of the many democratic socialists or social democrats in Congress, at least a fraction would go so far as to say they favor outright central planning and control of the means of production. Others might not definitively think a communist scheme of social organization is optimal but would consider it somehow preferable to democratic capitalism.

To answer the second question, we have to acknowledge that the word “communism” still has a very negative connotation to the average American, even as some of the ideas that fuel or lead to communism (e.g. the mind of man is all there is, history progresses linearly and inexorably toward collectivism, etc.) have become surprisingly widespread. Consequently, even those who admit the appeal of communist ideas or acknowledge themselves to have been influenced by those ideas will shy away from the actual label of “communist.”

It has puzzled me for some time that socialists and communists are so unwilling to call themselves by name — but, the more I read of history, the more I understand. My generation might not understand what communism really is, but we have some underlying sense that it has been broadly rejected by free and thinking peoples and we really wouldn’t have much appetite to hear ideas from someone who outright identified himself with a failed theory of social organization. Like any young people, though, we’re susceptible to making ourselves our own gods — so we’re still susceptible to the allure of the ideas of communism.

We also have to acknowledge that the average American — including the average young American — thinks that nobody today would actually embrace the failed theories that led to the bloodiest century in human history. We can conceive of anti-capitalism and crony capitalism, of a big-government approach to the solution of all problems — but outright socialism or communism? That seems like a stretch. That means that, at the same time that socialists and communists are unwilling to claim their ideas, opponents of those ideas are unwilling to label socialists and communists as such for fear of acquiring the “extreme” or “out-of-touch” label.

That’s the risk Allen West has brought upon himself with his remarks. We’ve seen West risk the “extreme” label more than once. The most ready example of his bravery is in his unflinching elucidations of what does and does not constitute racism. His past teaches us to expect that he’s unconcerned about whether these remarks earn him the label “out-of-touch.” (Incidentally, liberals can’t accuse him of fear-mongering in this instance unless they’re willing to concede that there is something in communism to fear. Then again, I suppose they would argue that it’s not that there is something in communism to fear so much as there is a common perception that there is something in communism to fear.)

At any rate, it probably wasn’t politically savvy of West to say this if he’s interested to win the VP nod. Mitt Romney has shown every sign of wanting to moderately defend conservative ideas and West doesn’t often moderate his rhetoric. It was savvy, though, if he’s looking primarily to solidify his reputation as a heedless-of-the-consequences speaker of the truth, a man who calls ’em as he sees ’em.

Update: According to this tweet, a spokesperson for Allen West said he was referring to the Progressive Caucus when he said 80 members of the House are communists. Meanwhile, a reader e-mailed me to note that it is beyond any kind of dispute that a number of House Democrats are members of the The Democratic Socialists of America. In 2009, DSA released the names of 70 such Democrats, many of whom still serve in the House.