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.”
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.