Pew Research finds that sixty percent of Americans respond negatively to “socialism.” It is clear why President Barack Obama must avoid that label. Words are important. Political candidates who control the language of political discourse win elections.
Most of our elites would certainly not entertain the question: “Is Obama a socialist?” Only irresponsible fanatics carelessly throw around such epithets, they say. Polite circles ignore such goofiness.
As someone who has professionally studied and written about comparative economics, capitalism, and socialism for almost fifty years, the reticence to probe the core beliefs of a political leader seems odd. The question is perfectly legitimate in both an academic and political context as long as we define terms and place the discussion in proper context.
By “socialist,” I do not mean a Lenin, Castro, or Mao, but whether Obama falls within the mainstream of contemporary socialism as represented, for example, by Germany’s Social Democrats, French Socialists, or Spain’s socialist-workers party?
By this criterion, yes, Obama is a socialist.
The socialist parties of Europe trace their origins to reform Marxism. After Marx’s death in 1883, Europe’s Marxists rejected the Bolsheviks’ call for socialist revolution and worked within the political system for Marxist goals. Marxists, such as Karl Leibknecht, August Bebel, Paul Lafargue, Leon Blum, and others, formed the socialist parties that we know today. Most emerged from the trade-union movement, and they retain close ties with organized labor today, as does Obama’s Democrat Party.
Whereas, the eighteenth century liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith gave us our constitution and limited government, Marxism provided the intellectual foundations of the European welfare state.
The European socialists have their welfare state. Even their conservative opponents no longer question the “social state,” despite rising concern about its affordability. In the United States, we are fighting the battle of the welfare state, and we do not know what the outcome will be.
The European welfare state takes one half of national output to provide state health care, pensions, extended unemployment benefits, income grants, and free higher education. Failed nationalizations taught European socialists to leave enterprise in private hands and coerce it through taxation and regulation to contribute to what the state deems the “social welfare.”
The November 2011 Declaration of Principles of the Party of European Socialists (PES) summarizes the European socialist agenda. I condense its main points and compare them with Obama’s statements and legislative initiatives:
PES: The welfare state and state-provided universal access to education and health care are society’s great achievements.
Obama: Favors universal access to health care and associated benefits as a critical expansion of the welfare state.
PES: A strong and just society must ensure that the wealth generated by all is shared fairly as determined by the state.
Obama: Favors progressive taxes on the rich to redistribute income and wealth from winners to losers and to ensure that all pay their fair share. (As he has said: “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”)
PES: Collective responsibility makes society stronger when people work together, and all people are enabled to live a dignified life, free of poverty and protected from social risks in life.
Obama: Favors collective responsibility (as defined by the federal government) to protect all from social risks through food stamps, welfare programs, extended unemployment benefits, guaranteed health care, the bailing out of big companies, forcing renegotiation of mortgages, class action law suits, and other measures. (Instead of opportunity and incentive to succeed, no one is allowed to fail).
PES: The state must insure that economic growth is environmentally “sustainable.”
Obama: Favors carbon taxes, higher energy prices, restricted drilling and refining, and subsidies of green technology for the “common good,” even at the expenses of higher conventional growth and jobs.
PES: If unfettered by state control, market forces, driven by and greed and shift power to the privileged few, deepen economic, geographic and social inequalities, and create economic crises.
Obama: Shows a distrust of market forces and advocates selective regulation, subsidies, and taxation to persuade or coerce business to promote the general welfare as he defines it. Industries not part of his collective endeavor (oil and gas and coal) are penalized. Industries that serve his conception of “general welfare” (green technology) are to be promoted even if the market rejects them.
PES: Ensuring long lasting prosperity, stability and above all, peace requires effective coordination in the international realm based on democracy, mutual respect, and human rights.
Obama: Places reliance on international institutions, international consensus, and mutual respect in the conduct of foreign policy. (The United States must coordinate its foreign policy with international organizations and treat even rogue nations with respect in the hope that they will voluntarily improve their behavior).
PES: A strong state must preserve the public good, guarantee the common interest, promote justice and solidarity and allow people to lead lives rich beyond material wealth, so that each individual’s fulfillment is also part of a collective endeavor.
Obama: Advocates a strong state that offers the “positive right” of political and economic justice to its citizens. He complains that the U.S. Constitution is a “charter of negative liberties,” that dictates what government “can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf.”
If the Party of European Socialists were to rate Obama, he would get a near perfect score. The political views and programs that Obama is prepared to reveal to the public are consistent with those of European socialists. He is clearly a socialist in the European sense of the term.
If the “socialist label” sticks, Obama faces an even more uphill 2012 campaign. In scripted moments – like Tuesday’s State of the Union Address — he must present his socialist campaign themes while avoiding the appearance of being a socialist.
Obama must worry most about those slips in unscripted moments that, I believe, reveal a deep animosity towards private enterprise. He has given us a few fleeting glimpses, such as his complaint about the Constitution’s “negative rights and his off-the-cuff “spread the wealth around” remark. His most recent and significant slip was to tell Occupy Wall Street protesters: “You are the reason I ran for office.”
Obama’s defenders will counter that Republicans also accept Social Security and a progressive income tax and that his slips are taken out of context. But these criticisms fail to address the remarkable coincidence of Obama’s views with those of European socialists. By comparing Obama not to Lenin or Mao but to European socialism, we have placed the question “Is Obama a socialist?” in a fair and appropriate context.
Our political discourse is conducted largely in the language of the left, to the disadvantage of conservatives. After all, who can oppose “fairness, justice, dignified life, or sustainable growth?” Only sophisticated observers understand that these are code words for something else. They are all excuses for the state to take from one group to give to another or to coerce people or businesses to do something they do not want to do otherwise. The more powerful the state, the greater the risk of state coercion under the guise of noble aims. Enhancing the size, scope, and power of the state vis-à-vis the private sector may be Obama’s ultimate objective.
This country was founded on the principle that individuals should not be subject to the control of a powerful state. That founding idea has never before been in greater peril.