What Kind of Socialist Is Barack Obama?
The assertion that Barack Obama is a socialist became a hallmark of the 2008 presidential campaign. His opponent, John McCain, used Obama’s own extemporaneous words to an Ohio plumber as Exhibit A: “When you spread the wealth around,” Obama had said, “it’s good for everybody.” That, McCain insisted, sounded “a lot like socialism,” as did Obama’s proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy and high earners for the explicit purpose of taking better care of the lower and middle classes with that redistributed money.
Republicans believed they had hit a rhetorical mother lode with this line of argument in 2008, but their efforts to make hay of Obama’s putative socialism proved unedifying, if not outright comic. The National Committee of the Republican Party even formally considered a resolution on whether the Democratic party should change its name to “the Democratic Socialist Party” of the United States. The stunt was shelved infavor of compromise language lamenting the Democrats’ “march toward socialism.”
Fourteen months into his presidency, in March 2010, Obama succeeded in muscling through Congress a partial government takeover of the national health-care system. That legislative accomplishment followed Obama’s decision a year earlier, without congressional approval, to nationalize two of the country’s Big Three automobile companies. In the intervening months, he had also imposed specific wage ceilings on employees at banks that had taken federal bailout money—the first such federal wage controls since an ill-fated experiment by Richard Nixon in 1971. Obama also made the federal government the direct provider of student loans, and did so by putting that significant change in American policy inside the larger health-care bill. In a September 2009 press conference, Obama suggested that a publicly funded health-care system might help “avoid. . .some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs”—thus mistaking the act of making money, the foundational cornerstone of capitalism itself, with the generation of unnecessary expenses.
Given his conduct and rhetoric as president, we have every reason to reopen the question from 2008 and ask, quite simply, What kind of socialist is Barack Obama?
Now, when conservatives dare to suggest, tentatively or otherwise, that Obama or his party might be in the thrall of some variant of socialism, they are derided for it. In the wake of health care’s passage, for example, a Salon article mocked conservatives for thinking that Americans now live under “the Bolshevik heel.” When the RNC was debating its resolution in 2008, Robert Schlesinger, the opinion editor of U.S. News & World Report, responded: “What’s really both funny and scary about all of this is how seriously the fringe-nuts in the GOP take it.”
Similarly, in a May 2009 interview, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham mocked the president’s critics for considering Obama to be a “crypto-socialist.” By these lights, socialism is a very sophisticated, highly technical, and historically precise phenomenon that has nothing to do with the politics or ideas of the present moment, and conservatives who invoke the term to describe Obama’s policies and ideas are at best wildly imprecise and at worst purposefully rabble-rousing. And yet when liberals themselves discuss socialism and its relation to Obama, the definition of the term “socialist” seems to loosen up considerably. Only four months before Meacham’s mockery of conservatives, he co-authored a cover story for his magazine titled “We’re All Socialists Now,” in which he and Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (grandson of the six-time Socialist-party presidential candidate Norman Thomas) argued that the growth of government was making us like a “European,” i.e. socialist, country. At the same time, a host of Left-liberal writers, most prominently E.?J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, were floating the idea that the new president was ushering in a new age of “social democracy.” The left-wing activist-blogger Matthew Yglesias, echoing the Obama White House view that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, said the Wall Street meltdown offered a “real opportunity” for “massive socialism.”
In an April 2009 essay published in Foreign Policy, John Judis modestly called “prescient” a prediction he himself had made in the mid-1990s: “Once the sordid memory of Soviet communism is laid to rest and the fervor of anti-government hysteria abates,” he had written in a symposium in the American Enterprise, “politicians and intellectuals of the next century will once again draw openly upon the legacy of socialism.” In his Foreign Policy piece, Judis claimed vindication in the age of Obama: “Socialism, once banished from polite conversation, has made a startling comeback.” For Judis, today’s resurgent socialism isn’t the totalitarian variant we associate with the Soviet Union or Cuba but rather that of the “Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, whose economies were shaped by socialist agitation.” This is “another kind of socialism—call it ‘liberal socialism,’” Judis explains, and it “has a lot to offer.”
These ideas were given further empirical weight by an April 2009 Rasmussen poll that found “only 53 percent of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.” Of the remaining 47 percent, 20 percent preferred socialism to capitalism, while 27 percent were unsure. Meanwhile, adults “under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37 percent prefer capitalism, 33 percent socialism, and 30 percent are undecided.” Yglesias argued that the data “reflects the fact that on a basic level ‘socialism’ is good branding. The whole idea is that we should put society first rather than capital, or money. That sounds good!”
Harold Meyerson, who actually calls himself a socialist, wanted it both ways. In a March 4, 2009, Washington Post column, he argued that anyone calling Obama a socialist didn’t know what he was talking about: “Take it from a democratic socialist: Laissez-faire American capitalism is about to be supplanted not by socialism but by a more regulated, viable capitalism. And the reason isn’t that the woods are full of secret socialists who are only now outing themselves.”
But after the Rasmussen data came out the following month, Meyerson changed his tune. In a column titled “Rush Builds a Revolution,” he argued that conservative attempts to demonize Obama as a socialist had backfired and were leading Americans, particularly young Americans, to embrace the label. “Rush [Limbaugh] and his boys are doing what Gene Debs and his comrades never really could,” Meyerson wrote. “In tandem with Wall Street, they are building socialism in America.” Moreover, whereas a more “viable, regulated capitalism” at first distinguished Obamaism from socialism, it now defined Obama’s brand of socialism. “Today,” Meyerson observed, “the world’s socialist and social democratic parties basically champion a more social form of capitalism, with tighter regulations on capital, more power for labor and an expanded public sector to do what the private sector cannot (such as providing universal access to health care).”
Surely if fans of President Obama’s program feel free to call it socialist, critics may be permitted to do likewise.
But is it correct, as an objective matter, to call Obama’s agenda “socialist”? That depends on what one means by socialism. The term has so many associations and has been used to describe so many divergent political and economic approaches that the only meaning sure to garner consensus is an assertive statism applied in the larger cause of “equality,” usually through redistributive economic policies that involve a bias toward taking an intrusive and domineering role in the workings of the private sector. One might also apply another yardstick: an ambivalence, even antipathy, for democracy when democracy proves inconvenient.1 With this understanding as a vague guideline, the answer is certainly, Yes, Obama’s agenda is socialist in a broad sense. The Obama administration may not have planned on seizing the means of automobile production or asserting managerial control over Wall Street. But when faced with the choice, it did both. Obama did explicitly plan on imposing a massive restructuring of one-sixth of the U.S. economy through the use of state fiat—and he is beginning to do precisely that.
Obama has, on numerous occasions, placed himself within the progressive intellectual and political tradition going back to Theodore Roosevelt and running through Franklin Roosevelt. With a few exceptions, the progressive political agenda has always been to argue for piecemeal reforms, not instant transformative change—but reforms that always expand the size, scope, and authority of the state. This approach has numerous benefits. For starters, it’s more realistic tactically. By concentrating on the notion of reform rather than revolution, progressives can work to attract both ideologues of the Left and moderates at the same time. This allows moderates to be seduced by their own rhetoric about the virtues of a specific reform as an end in itself. Meanwhile, more sophisticated ideologues understand that they are supporting a camel’s-nose strategy. In an unguarded moment during the health-care debate in 2009, Representative Barney Frank confessed that he saw the “public option,” the supposedly limited program that would have given the federal government a direct role as an insurer in competition with private insurers, as merely a way station to a single-payer system in which the government is the sole provider of health care. In his September 2009 joint-session address to Congress on health care, President Obama insisted that “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” Six months later, when he got the health-care bill he wanted, he insisted that it was only a critical “first step” to overhauling the system. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was one of the relatively few self-described moderates who both understood the tactic and supported it. “There seems no inherent obstacle,” Schlesinger wrote in 1947, “to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.”
This prospect haunted the great economist and philosopher of liberty Friedrich von Hayek. There was little prospect, Hayek wrote, of America or the Western democracies deliberately embracing what he called the “hot socialism” of the Soviets. “Yet though hot socialism is probably a thing of the past,” he wrote in the preface of the 1956 edition of his masterpiece, The Road to Serfdom,
some of its conceptions have penetrated far too deeply into the whole structure of current thought to justify complacency. If few people in the Western world now want to remake society from the bottom according to some ideal blueprint, a great many still believe in measures which, though not designed completely to remodel the economy, in their aggregate effect may well unintentionally produce this result.
The non-hot socialism Hayek was describing often goes by the name of “social democracy,” though it is perhaps best understood as an American variant of Fabianism, the late-Victorian British socialist tendency. “There will never come a moment when we can say ‘now Socialism is established,’” explained Sidney Webb, Britain’s leading Fabian, in 1887. The flaw of Fabianism, and the reason it never became a mass movement on the Left, is that the revolutionary appetite will never be sated by its incrementalist approach. The political virtue of Fabianism is that since “socialism” is always around the corner and has never been fully implemented, it can never be held to blame for the failings of the statist policies that have already been enacted. The cure is always more incremental socialism. And the disease is, always and forever, laissez-faire capitalism. That is why George W. Bush’s tenure is routinely described by Democrats as a period of unfettered capitalism and “market fundamentalism,” even as the size and scope of government massively expanded under Bush’s watch while corporate tax rates remained high and Wall Street was more, not less, regulated.
Early in the 20th century, Webb drafted Clause IV of the Labour party constitution in Great Britain, which described its ultimate aim thus:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
Clause IV was “holy writ” for British Labourites, to borrow a phrase from Joshua Muravchik’s indispensable history of socialism, Heaven on Earth. Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson compared amending Clause IV to excising the book of Genesis from the Bible. But in the late 1990s, Tony Blair, a leader in Britain’s Christian socialism movement, successfully pushed through a revision to the holy writ. His new version read, in part:
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.
Blair’s revision of Clause IV elicited numerous denunciations. A leader of the miners’ unions said the changes amounted to tearing up the Ten Commandments. Even though he hailed from the Right of the Labour party, Roy Hattersley, a former deputy party leader, complained that Blair was abandoning the “bedrock. . .principle” of “redistribution of power and wealth.” But Blair stuck to his guns. He argued that while he rejected doctrinaire “socialism,” he was committed to what he called “social-ism.”
Blair’s hair-splitting got at an important distinction. Socialism, sprawling and inchoate as it may be, is still a doctrine. “Social-ism” is something different. It is an orientation, a way of thinking about politics and governance—it is oriented toward government control but is not monomaniacally committed to it as the be-all and end-all. Social-ism is about what activists call “social justice,” which is always “progressive” and egalitarian but not invariably statist. As a practical matter, “social-ism” works from the assumption that well-intentioned leaders and planners are both smart enough and morally obliged to, in Obama’s words, “spread the wealth around” for the betterment of the whole society in general and the underprivileged in particular.
But at a far more important level, “social-ism” is a fundamentally religious impulse, a utopian yearning to create a perfect society unconstrained by the natural trade-offs of mortal life. What Blair’s doctrinal revision recognizes is that public ownership of the means of production—the central economic principle of socialism—is not necessary as long as private interests and private businesses can be compelled to follow the designated road to utopia.
As mentioned above, one of the key liberal techniques for fending off accusations of socialism, and discrediting those who make the charge, is to equate Marxism with socialism and then insist (often correctly) that since liberals aren’t Marxists, anyone who says liberals are socialists is a fool or a partisan ideologue. But socialism preceded Marxism, and socialism has survived Marxism, in part because Marxism was subjected to a real-world test for nearly a century and failed on an epic scale. Soviet revolutionaries did not engage in Fabian incrementalism; they got their country and their empire and their worldwide movement, and they worked their will without opposition.
The contribution Marxism made to the socialism from which it arose was to offer a pseudo-scientific gloss to the ill-defined urges and impulses of those who despised the rising system of capitalism and the growing middle class to which it gave birth. Because Marxism was taken seriously as an economic theory for so long, it gave socialism an empirical patina that it otherwise lacked. But at its core, socialism remains a rationalization for a fundamentally tribal and premodern understanding of economics.
Indeed, the economic aspect of socialism was itself something of an afterthought. The French Revolution was the birthplace of socialism, yet the unjust distribution of economic resources was not then its immediate concern. “Whereas the core issue for the Americans in 1776 was political legitimacy,” Muravchik writes, “for the French in 1789 it was social status.” Overturning the privileges of the aristocracy drove the French quest for égalité. To that end, the French Revolutionaries actually championed the imperative of private property for all citizens. Even the constitution of 1793, which Muravchik calls “the formal expression of the most extreme phase of the Revolution,” held private property to be sacrosanct.
It was the revolutionary rabble-rouser Francois-Noël Babeuf who first asserted in 1794 that true equality would be impossible without the abolition of private property. The pursuit of private wealth was simply the means of replacing one aristocracy with another, he argued. The true promised land required abolishing such distinctions, inherited or earned. Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of Equals”—a precursor to Lenin’s revolutionary avant-garde—sought to “remove from every individual the hope of ever becoming richer, or more powerful, or more distinguished by his intelligence.” The goal, according to the Manifesto of the Equals, was the “disappearance of boundary-marks, hedges, walls, door locks, disputes, trials, thefts, murders, all crimes. . .courts, prisons, gallows, penalties.. .envy, jealousy, insatiability, pride, deception, duplicity, in short, all vices.” To fill that void, “the great principle of equality, or universal fraternity would become the sole religion of the peoples.” Say what you will about such an agenda, it is certainly not focused on empirical economic theory.
Indeed, very few successful socialist propagandists ever bothered to focus on the empirical case for socialism. Rather, when trying to sell socialism as a policy or a movement, its preachers testify about “social justice,” “humane policies,” “fairness,” and “equality.” In short, socialism—be it Marxist, Fabian, nationalistic, progressive—is merely one of many pseudo-empirical rationalizations of the deeper psychological impulse of Blair’s “social-ism.” The true case for socialism is not to be found in GDP or employment numbers, but in the promise of leaping out of History into a better society where we are all loved and respected as members of the same family.
The spirit of “social-ism” takes different forms, both benign and malignant, in different eras. When God “died” in the 19th century, “social-ism” took the form of materialist scientism (hence the philosopher Eric Voegelin’s observation that under Marxism, “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come”). It’s worth recalling that both Marx and Engels came to their socialism via their atheism, not the other way around. But in America in the early 20th century, “social-ism” most powerfully manifested itself as Christian progressivism. In Europe, “social-ism” fueled a thousand doctrinal factions. Arguably the most successful and laudable “living experiment” with socialism, the Israeli kibbutz movement, could hardly be understood as an economic phenomenon.
The promise and purpose of “social-ism” are most obviously on display in the worldview of environmentalism. It is hardly a new insight that much of the environmental movement is a Trojan Horse for socialist assumptions and ambitions (the British like to call environmentalists “watermelons”—green on the outside, red on the inside). Three decades ago, Robert Nisbet recognized that environmentalism was poised to become “the third great redemptive struggle in Western history, the first being Christianity, the second modern socialism.” Western society, wrote Nisbet, was moving from “the Gospel of Capitalist Efficiency to the Gospel of Utopianism.” One need not wade too deeply into the literature of a “steady state” or carbon-free economy to see the wisdom in Nisbet’s prediction.
Obama is no Marxist. This is a point lost on some who like to highlight the president’s indebtedness to the ideas of the late radical Saul Alinsky, who was no Marxist either. Rather, Alinsky was a radical leftist and a proponent of “social-ism” before Blair named it. He believed that all institutions, indeed the system itself, should be bent to the needs of the underprivileged and the downtrodden in the name of social justice. Bent, not broken. Like the progressives and various Marxists, Alinsky was a proponent of radical pragmatism, using the tools available to change the existing order. This was the core of what the New York Times, in a remarkable 1913 analysis surveying Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas in the wake of his third-party campaign for president, dubbed T.R.’s “super-socialism”: “It is not the Marxian Socialism. Much that Karl Marx taught is rejected by present-day Socialists. Mr. Roosevelt achieves the redistribution of wealth in a simpler and easier way”—by soaking the rich and yoking big business to the state. “It has all the simplicity of theft and much of its impudence,” the Times asserted. “The means employed are admirably adapted to the ends sought, and if the system can be made to work at all, it will go on forever.”
President Obama’s health-care plan is a pristine example of this approach. He is long on record saying he would prefer a single-payer system if we could design one from scratch. But since he has to work from within the confines of the existing system, he has given us ObamaCare instead—which, again, is now merely a “critical first step.” It uses insurance companies as governmental entities, akin to utilities, to provide a now-mandatory government service. The insurance companies will make nominal government-decreed profits on top of government-decreed “fees” and “premiums” (the quotation marks are necessary given that rates will be set by government and enforced by the Internal Revenue Service).
Obama still scoffs at the suggestion that he is a socialist largely to delegitimize his opponents. During his address to House Republicans at their retreat in December 2009, Obama ridiculed Republicans for acting as if his health-care scheme were some “Bolshevik plot.” In responding to the “Tea Parties” organized to oppose the expansion of government, Obama has explicitly likened those who describe his policies as socialist to the “birther” conspiracy theorists who foolishly believe he was actually born outside the United States: “There’s some folks who just weren’t sure whether I was born in the United States, whether I was a socialist, right?”
He reserves for himself the mantle of technocrat, disinterested, pragmatic, pushed to use the powers of government by the failings of his predecessor and the madness of the free market. He is not interested in ideology; he is interested in doing “what works” for the greatest number of Americans (he has often said that his guiding insight to government’s role is the notion that we are all our brothers’ keepers). Indeed, Obama goes further and often insinuates that principled disagreement with his agenda is “ideological” and therefore illegitimate. In a speech on the eve of his inauguration, he proclaimed that “what is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.” In other words, to borrow a phrase from Lionel Trilling, ideology is an irritable mental gesture.
Denying that you are an ideologue is not the same thing as proving the point. And certainly Obama’s insistence that ideology is something only his critics suffer from is no defense when stacked against the evidence of his actions. The “pragmatic” Obama is only interested in “what works” as long as “what works” involves a significantly expanded role for government. In this sense, Obama is a practitioner of the Third Way, the governing approach most successfully trumpeted by Blair, who claimed to have found a “third way” that rejected the false premises of both Left and Right and therebylocated a “smarter” approach to expanding government. The powerful appeal of this idea lies in the fact that it sounds as if its adherents have rejected ideological dogmatism and gone beyond those “false choices.” Thus, a leader can both provide health care to 32 million people and save money, or, as Obama likes to say, “bend the cost curve down.” But in not choosing, Obama is choosing. He is choosing the path of government control, which is what the Third Way inevitably does and is intended to do.
Still, the question remains, What do we call Obama’s “social-ism”? John Judis’s formulation—“liberal socialism”—is perfectly serviceable, and so is “social democracy” or, for that matter, simply “progressivism.” My own, perhaps too playful, suggestion would be neosocialism.
The term neoconservative was assigned—and with hostile intent—to a group of diverse thinkers who had grown convinced that the open-ended ambitions of the Great Society were utopian and, ultimately, counterproductive, even harmful. At first, few neoconservatives embraced the label (as late as 1979, Irving Kristol claimed he was the only one to accept the term, “perhaps because, having been named Irving, I am relatively indifferent to baptismal caprice”). But as neoconservatism matured, it did become a distinct approach to domestic politics, one that sought to reign in government excess while pursuing conservative ends within the confines of the welfare state.
In many respects, Barack Obama’s neo-socialism is neoconservatism’s mirror image. Openly committed to ending the Reagan era, Obama is a firm believer in the power of government to extend its scope and grasp far deeper into society. In much the same way that neoconservatives accepted a realistic and limited role for the government, Obama tolerates a limited and realistic role for the market: its wealth is necessary for the continuation and expansion of the welfare state and social justice. While neoconservatism erred on the side of trusting the nongovernmental sphere—mediating institutions like markets, civil society, and the family—neosocialism gives the benefit of the doubt to government. Whereas neoconservatism was inherently skeptical of the ability of social planners to repeal the law of unintended consequences, Obama’s ideal is to leave social policy in their hands and to bemoan the interference of the merely political.
“I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn’t have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed,” he told CBS’s Katie Couric. “But that’s not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people.”
Whereas Ronald Reagan saw the answers to our problems in the private sphere (“in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”), Obama seeks to expand confidence in, and reliance on, government wherever and whenever he can, albeit within the confines of a generally Center-Right nation and the “unfortunate” demands of democracy.
As with Webb’s Fabian socialism, one will never be able to say of Obama’s developing doctrine, “now socialism has arrived.” On the night the House of Representatives passed the health-care bill, Obama said, “This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction.” Then, speaking specifically of another vote to be taken in the Senate but also cleverly to those not yet satisfied with what had been achieved, he added, “Now, as momentous as this day is, it’s not the end of this journey.”
Under Obama’s neosocialism, that journey will be endless, and no matter how far down the road toward socialism we go, he will always be there to tell the increasingly beleaguered marchers that we have only taken a “critical first step.”
1 On this score, contemporary liberalism does not come out too well either. When it appeared that health-care-reform legislation would not pass, a chorus of liberal voices, in and out of government, rallied around the notion that the American political system “sucks.” And on the issue of global warming, there is a loud and growing antagonism to democracy per se. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speaks for many when he says, often, that China’s “one party autocracy” is preferable to America’s “one party democracy.”