John McCain’s desperate attempts to smear Obama as a socialist during the last weeks of the campaign because of his defense of progressive income taxes are well behind us. Now that Obama’s economic team has been named, primarily from the center-right, the question is more likely to be whether he is still a left-wing Democrat. But the attacks were a sign of how far right the Republicans had gone in questioning a policy long accepted by most Americans. We have forgotten that under that notorious left-winger Dwight D. Eisenhower, the tax on the highest bracket was 90 percent. In recent years tax cuts have been used, very effectively, to redistribute income upward. But “socialist” seemed to work as an epithet, replacing “communist,” no longer useful now that Russia and China have become capitalist, and “liberal,” now overused.
While Socialist parties still play an important role in Western Europe and, increasingly, in Latin America, they have long disappeared from the American scene. Since the death of Michael Harrington, there has been no acknowledged spokesman. Though Bernie Sanders was elected as a socialist, he has not chosen to forward any socialist alternatives. There is no one around to explain what socialist approaches to the present economic crisis might be, what a platform different from Obama’s very careful centrist arguments would be like.
In 1942 a quarter of the population thought that socialism, of the kind that would be elected in nearly all of Western Europe, would be a “good thing.” Socialist ideas were so popular that Harry Truman, old-style Democratic machine politician that he was, ran on a platform well to the left of Obama’s–or of any of his Democratic successors. He faced important competitors to his left, not only the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas but also the more popular Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace. Truman thus argued for a socialized national health insurance plan, for more TVAs as well as more public housing, hospitals and the like. Full employment, not tax cuts, was then the American priority.
To be sure, socialists, like the Democrats, have long argued for greater equality, economic as well as social. One can still see the effects of their policies in the Scandinavian countries and in France, where, despite having elected the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, the top fifth of the population earns around four times what the bottom fifth does (as opposed to the United States, where the top 1 percent notoriously gets 20 percent of the national income). The French, along with the pre-Blair British and others, use their tax dollars in part to guarantee every citizen full medical care as well as an effective and free educational system through the university level. These extensive social payments, which all Socialist parties have implemented throughout Western Europe, give their citizens a far higher overall standard of living than we can hope to have.