Asked whether Barack Obama was a socialist—as Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have all agreed is most certain—former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney tried to talk his way around the most predictable question of Thursday night’s Fox News/Google debate.
But he more or less “went there.”
“What President Obama is, is a big-spending liberal,” Romney replied. “He takes his political inspiration from Europe and from the socialist-democrats in Europe. Guess what? Europe isn’t working in Europe. It’s not going to work here.”
A few minutes later, Gingrich went all in, decrying “Obama’s socialist policies.”
So there you have it. Obama’s a socialist, right? Wrong.
The president rejects the title, explicitly.
When he began talking deficit reduction last summer—with a proposal for a little bit of tax fairness combined with a suggestion that he was open to negotiations with regard to the future of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—Obama went out of his way to explain that his was not “some wild-eyed socialist position.”
Agreed. Obama is no socialist.
Indeed, he has made the point again and again that he rejects the socialist and social-democratic solutions that have worked in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Britain and Canada. He has rejected “socialized medicine” in favor of a healthcare reform plan that requires uninsured Americans to buy policies from for-profit insurance companies. He has refused to get tough on Wall Street and the big banks, allowing “too big to fail” private institutions to threaten the US economy. He has chosen not to respond to the unemployment crisis with the sort of jobs programs that Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented during the New Deal era, and that Hubert Humphrey made central to his advocacy as a senator and presidential candidate in the 1960s and 1970s.
So Obama is right. He is no socialist.
But his determination to distance himself from socialist ideas and socialist thinkers also distances him from past Democratic presidents and party leaders—as well as past Republican presidents and party leaders.
Socialism is not a foreign concept. Socialist ideas have been a part of the American discourse and American policymaking for the better part of two centuries. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by, among others, followers of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier and radical land reformers who proudly promoted the ideal of redistribution of the common wealth. Horace Greeley employed Karl Marx as the European correspondent for the great newspaper of the Republican movement, the New York Tribune. And Abraham Lincoln employed Marx’s editor and friend Charles Dana as a presidential assistant.
Seventy-five years later, Franklin Roosevelt consulted with the Socialist Party presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, before assuming the presidency and launching the New Deal. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt announced that, had her husband not been a candidate in 1932, she would have voted for Thomas on the Socialist ticket.
During the cold war, cities as diverse as Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Bridgeport, Connecticut, elected socialist mayors.
As president, John F. Kennedy read and praised the writings of Michael Harrington, a Socialist Party member who would go on to lead the Democratic Socialists of America. Lyndon Johnson’s administration brought Harrington into the fold as a consultant on the development of “war on poverty” programs and invited veteran socialist union leader A. Philip Randolph (the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom) to present his “Freedom Budget” for ending poverty at the White House.
Randolph made that presentation along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who in that same year, 1966, would explain to his staff: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry…. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism…. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
It is certainly true that Barack Obama is not an advocate for any “wild-eyed socialist position.” Nor is he an advocate for any sober and sound socialist position.
Obama’s explicit and frequent rejection of the word “socialist” parallels his rejection of the ideals and ideas associated with that word.
But distancing himself from socialist and social democratic ideals does not make Obama or his policies any more “American”—or any more in sync with the approaches of the country’s great presidents.
Quite the opposite.
Great American presidents, from at least the time of Lincoln, have respected and engaged with socialists and social-democratic ideas. They have not always embraced those ideas. And even when they have borrowed from the socialist toolkit, the act of doing so did not make them socialists—any more than Jimmy Carter’s openness to drug law reform made him a libertarian or Obama’s intriguing with those who would begin the gutting of Medicare makes him a Barry Goldwater Republican.
When Obama goes out of his way to declare that his is no “wild-eyed socialist position,” the president tells us what everyone except Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney knows. Obama also buys into the right-wing rhetoric that tells us America needs a narrower and more listless debate.
Obama and the conservatives he echoes are wrong. Now, more than ever, America needs more ideas, more debate, and a wider range of options.
Rejecting whole ideologies—conservatism or liberalism, libertarianism or socialism—is unhealthy, especially in so dynamic a country as the United States. And doing so reinforces the notion that the false choices peddled by corrupt politicians and convoluted thinkers are all that we have available to us.
John Nichols is the author of The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism (Verso).