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How Socialists Built America | The Nation

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How Socialists Built America

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If there’s one constant in the elite national discourse of the moment, it is the claim that America was founded as a capitalist country and that socialism is a dangerous foreign import that, despite our unwarranted faith in free trade, must be barred at the border. This most conventional “wisdom”—increasingly accepted at least until the recent grassroots mobilizations in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Maine—has held that everything public is inferior to everything private, that corporations are always good and unions always bad, that progressive taxation is inherently evil and that the best economic model is the one that allows the wealthy to gobble up as much of the Republic as they choose before anything trickles down to the great mass of Americans. Rush Limbaugh informs us regularly that proposals to tax people as rich as he is for the purpose of providing healthcare for kids and jobs for the unemployed are “antithetical” to the nation’s original intent and that Barack Obama’s reforms are “destroying this country as it was founded.”

This article is adapted from The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, published in March by Verso.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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When Obama offered tepid proposals to organize a private healthcare system in a more humane manner, Sean Hannity of Fox charged that “the Constitution was shredded, thwarted, the rule of law was passed aside.” Newt Gingrich said the Obama administration was “prepared to fundamentally violate the Constitution” and was playing to the “30 percent of the country [that] really is [in favor of] a left-wing secular socialist system.”

In 2009 Sarah Palin raised similar constitutional concerns, about Obama’s proposal to develop a system of “universal energy building codes” to promote energy efficiency. “Our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our country had in mind for us,” a gravely concerned Palin informed Hannity, who responded with a one-word question. “Socialism?”

“Well,” she said, “that is where we are headed.”

Actually, it’s not. Palin is wrong about the perils of energy efficiency, and she’s wrong about Obama. The president says he’s not a socialist, and the country’s most outspoken socialists heartily agree. Indeed, the only people who seem to think Obama displays even the slightest social democratic tendency are those who imagine that the very mention of the word “socialism” should inspire a reaction like that of a vampire confronted with the Host.

Unfortunately, Obama may be more frightened by the S-word than Palin. When a New York Times reporter asked the president in March 2009 whether his domestic policies suggested he was a socialist, a relaxed Obama replied, “The answer would be no.” He said he was being criticized simply because he was “making some very tough choices” on the budget. But after he talked with his hyper-cautious counselors, he began to worry. So he called the reporter back and said, “It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.” Then, as if reading from talking points, Obama declared, “It wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement, the prescription drug plan, without a source of funding.

“We’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles,” said Obama, who concluded with the kicker, “Some of the same folks who are throwing the word ‘socialist’ around can’t say the same.”

There’s more than a kernel of truth to this statement. Obama really is avoiding consideration of socialist, or even mildly social democratic, responses to the problems that confront him. He took the single-payer option off the table at the start of the healthcare debate, rejecting the approach that in other countries has provided quality care to all citizens at lower cost. His supposedly “socialist” response to the collapse of the auto industry was to give tens of billions in bailout funding to GM and Chrysler, which used the money to lay off thousands of workers and then relocate several dozen plants abroad—an approach about as far as a country can get from the social democratic model of using public investment and industrial policy to promote job creation and community renewal. And when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, threatening the entire Gulf Coast, instead of putting the Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies in charge of the crisis, Obama left it to the corporation that had lied about the extent of the spill, had made decisions based on its bottom line rather than environmental and human needs, and had failed at even the most basic tasks.

So we should take the president at his word when he says he’s acting on free-market principles. The problem, of course, is that Obama’s rigidity in this regard is leading him to dismiss ideas that are often sounder than private-sector fixes. Borrowing ideas and approaches from socialists would not make Obama any more of a socialist than Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. All these presidential predecessors sampled ideas from Marxist tracts or borrowed from Socialist Party platforms so frequently that the New York Times noted in a 1954 profile the faith of an aging Norman Thomas that he “had made a great contribution in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major parties”—ideas like “Social Security, public housing, public power developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other attributes of the welfare state.” The fact is that many of the men who occupied the Oval Office before Obama knew that implementation of sound socialist or social democratic ideas did not put them at odds with the American experiment or the Constitution.

The point here is not to defend socialism. What we should be defending is history—American history, with its rich and vibrant hues, some of them red. The past should be consulted not merely for anecdotes or factoids but for perspective on the present. Such a perspective empowers Americans who seek a robust debate, one that samples from a broad ideological spectrum—an appropriate endeavor in a country where Tom Paine imagined citizens who, “by casting their eye over a large field, take in likewise a large intellectual circuit, and thus approaching nearer to an acquaintance with the universe, their atmosphere of thought is extended, and their liberality fills a wider space.”

America has always suffered fools who would have us dwindle the debate down to a range of opinions narrow enough to contain the edicts of a potentate, a priest or a plantation boss. But the real history of America tells us that the unique thing about our present situation is that we have suffered the fools so thoroughly that a good many Americans—not just Tea Partisans or Limbaugh Dittoheads but citizens of the great middle—actually take Sarah Palin seriously when she rants that socialism, in the form of building codes, is antithetical to Americanism.

* * *

Palin is not the first of her kind. There’s nothing new about the charge that a president who is guiding “big government” toward projects other than the invasion of distant lands is a socialist. In the spring of 2009, just months after Obama and a new Democratic Congress took office, twenty-three members of the opposition renewed an old project when they proposed that “we the members of the Republican National Committee call on the Democratic Party to be truthful and honest with the American people by acknowledging that they have evolved from a party of tax and spend to a party of tax and nationalize and, therefore, should agree to rename themselves the Democrat Socialist Party.”

Cooler heads prevailed. Sort of. At an emergency meeting of the committee—which traces its history to the first Republican convention in 1856, where followers of French socialist Charles Fourier, Karl Marx’s editor, and their abolitionist comrades initiated the most radical restructuring of political parties in American history—it was suggested that the proposal to impose a new name on the Democrats might make “the Republican party appear trite and overly partisan.” The plan was dropped, but a resolution decrying the “march towards socialism” was passed. Thus, the RNC members now officially “recognize that the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals” and that the Democrats have as their “clear and obvious purpose…proposing, passing and implementing socialist programs through federal legislation.”

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