[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
To borrow a famous phrase, “a spectre is haunting” America, the specter of socialism. No kidding.
Last October, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, known experts on specters, labeled Democratic candidate Barack Obama a “socialist” because he proposed increasing taxes on the rich to spread the wealth more equally. And Senator John McCain, who has spent his entire adult life in the pay of the federal government, joined them in denouncing Obama’s plans as “socialism.”
At the same time, when those capitalist bastions, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, were rescuing and taking over commercial and investment banks in the waning days of the most conservative presidency since Calvin Coolidge, even President Bush suggested that this sounded like the end of free enterprise. And some of his best friends on the right said the bailouts smacked of socialism.
In early February as the outgoing Republican administration’s hundreds of billions in bailouts of businesses and banks gave way to the trillions in bailouts and stimulus proposals of the new Democratic President, Newsweek’s provocative cover proclaimed, “We are All Socialists Now.”
Noting the cries of “socialism” from the ranks of right-wing Republican lawmakers (who had given unswerving support to Bush’s deficits and Big Brother government), the Newsweek editors wrote,
“There it was...the S word, a favorite among conservatives...But it seems strangely beside the point. The U.S. government has already – under a conservative Republican administration –effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries...Whether we want to admit it or not...the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.”
By that they meant a social democracy, or a democracy (as in Britain, France and virtually everywhere else in the civilized world) with a measure of socialism, social ownership of public services.
Since then, with the introduction of Obama’s first budget, which calls for a tectonic shift in the nation’s priorities – from war fighting, do-nothing government and tax cuts for the wealthy to spending for public works, health care for all, jobs programs and education, liberals celebrate and call for nationalization and social democracy, while conservatives cry socialism as an epithet just short of communism. Thus a column in late February by conservative Washington Post pundit, Charles Krauthammer, was entitled, The Obamaist Manifesto. (Get it?).
On Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress, Krauthammer wrote, it
“...will be seen as historic – indeed as the foundational document of Obamaism. As it stands, it constitutes the boldest social democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. President.”
On the same date, as if taking a cue from Krauthammer, Congressional Quarterly reported from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, that Republican congressional leaders had come up with a strategy to oppose Obama’s budget priorities by “comparing them to those of socialist governments in Europe.”
House Republican leader John Boehner, one of the tannest members of Congress, considering he’s from Cincinnati, told the conference, “The stimulus, the omnibus budget, it’s all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Obama was seeking to “basically Europeanize America.”
Mike Huckabee said of Obama’s plans, “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”
And profitable prophet Tim LaHaye, told interviewer Rachel Maddow that Obama’s “socialism” was a precursor to “the rapture,” and the coming of the “antiChrist.”
That’s crazy, for sure, but it’s time to quit pussy-footing around the language and see what we’re talking about when throwing out words like “socialism.” For as I wrote here last October, there’s not a thing wrong with socialism. Some of our greatest minds were socialists, including Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell. But Barack Obama is not a socialist, although I would not object if he was.
Socialism, according to Wikipedia,
“refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods...”
The key phrase - ”public or state ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods” - separates what is and what is not socialist.
Thus, the Newsweek story referred to Bush’s huge expenditure and expansion of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit as an example of a movement toward European style socialism. It was nothing of the sort, for the legislation took the program out of the hands of the government, Medicare, and gave it to drug and insurance companies that have enjoyed big profits.
Moreover, Medicare is not a socialist enterprise because it contracts with insurance companies as regional administrators and Medicare’s providers - doctors, labs, hospitals - are mostly private, unlike the British system of socialized medicine where providers work for the National Health Service.
Even if Obama adopted Medicare for All, which I doubt, it would fall short of being socialized medicine, because medical providers would be working for themselves, as they do now with Medicare. As it is, Obama still plans that insurance companies will play a large role in health care.
The U.S. does, however, harbor enclaves of socialism. In the successful VA health system and in the National Institutes of Health, where some of the best medicine is done, providers work for the federal government. The National Parks are socialist enterprises, despite Bush’s attempts at privatizing them. Many public power utilities, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the great dams of the west, most urban transit systems and some railroads are owned by all of us.
Government can’t do anything right? Tell that to 60 million people served by Social Security. Or maybe you’d rather see Citigroup or General Motors or Philip Morris entrusted with your well-being.
I do not understand why we should fear the social democracy of Europe. Many Americans, including members of Congress, enjoy traveling to Europe and taking advantage of their social democracies - cheap and fast transportation, universal health care and a healthy opposition to war. There is no such thing as an uninsured person in the European Union, and the Euro has become as strong as the dollar.
But I digress. The only group that does not fear or even see the specter of socialism, is the Democratic Socialists of America, which mourns that socialism has not taken hold in this country and has few prospects. Nevertheless, as Obama is learning, despite the American desire for change, any challenge of the status quo will run into stiff opposition from those who have been in charge for more than eight years.
As that original 1848 manifesto said (substitute socialism for communism): “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as socialistic by its opponents in power?”
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine speaks of the writing life in Tuesdays.]