— Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”
In a June 4 article, The Associated Press took to task conservatives who use the word “socialist” to describe President Obama’s economic views.
In what some view as a news analysis — and others might be tempted to think was a blatant attempt to protect Obama from political damage — AP staff writer David Crary cited references to the president as a socialist from various Republican contenders for the GOP’s presidential nomination (though Mitt Romney refused to use the word).
The candidates weren’t the only ones: Analysts ranging from academics such as Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Policy Center, a Washington-based right-wing think tank, to popular commentators like Rush Limbaugh, also weren’t hesitant about laying the socialist label on the chief executive.
The main point of Crary’s piece was to pour cold water on such views, citing such experts on the left as Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who openly uses the S-word to describe himself, and academics like Rutgers political science professor Norman Markowitz, who called the use of the term part of a “hysterical outbreak of abuse” against Obama from some political opponents.
Crary did note that there are “multiple definitions” of the word that cause some who use it “to wrestle with semantics.”
Still, he wrote, “But to many historians and political scientists — and to actual socialists as well — the persistent claim that Obama is a socialist lacks credence. He’s widely seen as a pragmatist within the Democratic Party mainstream who’s had ample success raising campaign funds from wealthy Wall Street capitalists. Even some of his strongest critics acknowledge that his administration hasn’t sought one of the classic forms of socialism — government control of the nation’s means of production.”
He added, “In much of today’s world, socialism lacks the contentious overtones that it has in America. The new French president, Francois Hollande, is a Socialist, and most of Western Europe adheres to socialist-style policies that endure under a variety of governing parties.”
Then he quoted Terence Ball, a political scientist at Arizona State, who said that “socialist” has gained currency on the right because calling someone a “liberal” has “lost its shock value.”
All of Crary’s points are more than debatable, but that last one is wrong on its face. Liberals have dropped that label not because they dislike it, but because Americans in general have learned from bitter experience to scorn it. Thus, leftists are calling themselves “progressives” instead because the L-word still has a genuine sting.
But the definition of “progressive” has even more left-wing impact, tied as it is in our history to leaders and movements that greatly expanded the power of the state.
And that’s become one of the “multiple definitions” of who is a socialist in the public’s mind — one who wants to expand the state’s governing role in society without any limits on its potential reach. Those who decry its use in Obama’s case are either unaware that “it does not always mean what they think it means” — or they are being intentionally deceptive.
While current progressive initiatives may not result in government directly running businesses, there are many other ways to control what corporations do than by putting bureaucrats in CEOs’ offices.
For example, there’s a reason why GM has come to mean “Government Motors” since the Obama administration conducted a taxpayer-financed “bailout” that actually was a takeover — to the point where the administration actually took money the law said belonged to bondholders and gave it to GM’s unions instead.
In truth, we have seen that progressive government, like a spider seeking to trap a fly, builds stronger and stronger webs of control through laws and regulations that take away companies’ freedoms to conduct their business.
The government may not have built a “single-payer” structure for health insurance in Obamacare, but when bureaucrats can tell insurers who to insure, what to cover and how much to charge for that coverage, that’s a distinction without very much of a difference.
Build those restraints strong enough, and “government control of the means of production” becomes a fait accompli even if titular responsibility remains in “private” hands.
As columnist Thomas Sowell, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, pointed out this week, that structure of control is a “political ploy” that allows the government to take credit if policies succeed and blame “greedy executives” when they fail.
Sowell is reluctant to call Obama a socialist, labeling him “an enemy of the free market” instead. (That’s bad enough, you might well think.)
So when progressives and their allies in the media say all this fuss is a tempest in a tea party, we might recall a few facts.
First, as the Ethics and Public Policy’s Center’s Kurtz noted in a column on National Review Online this week, the president may or may not consider himself a socialist now, but in the mid-1990s, he became an enrolled member of the far-left New Party, which openly described itself as “social democratic” in outlook, and requested the party’s endorsement when he ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1996.
Those facts are supported by New Party minutes and rosters from those years, along with contemporaneous news reports.
Some may care about that, some may not — but what is odd is that Obama has denied he was a New Party member or ever sought the party’s support. Why would he find it necessary to conceal his membership if he could simply say today he had changed his views — that is, if he has changed them?
Second, economist Robert J. Samuelson (who is no hard-core conservative), in a June 11 Washington Post column headlined, “Can Germany come to the euro zone’s rescue?” made an observation relevant to American circumstances as well.
In citing what he called “the dark truth” that Germany, Europe’s most prosperous economy, “can’t rescue Europe,” he said, “To Germans, other European countries must now adjust to new, if unpleasant, realities. Chief among these is that the economies of many European countries are no longer strong enough to support their welfare states.”
That puts Crary’s view that “socialist” is a word without any “contentious overtones” in Europe in a different light, doesn’t it?
In fact, it reminds us that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once reportedly said that the problem with socialism is that, sooner or later, the spenders run out of other people’s money.
And as the record shows, there’s little doubt that Obama is one of the state-expanding spenders.
Finally, Hoover’s Sowell makes the essential point: “What socialism, fascism and other ideologies of the left (yes, of the left, as Jonah Goldberg’s book ‘Liberal Fascism’ has shown) have in common is an assumption that some very wise people — like themselves — need to take decisions out of the hands of lesser people, like the rest of us, and impose those decisions by government fiat.”
Only Americans’ recognition of the huge stakes involved, he added, “can save us from the rampaging presumptions of our betters, whether they are called socialists or fascists. So long as we buy their heady rhetoric, we are selling our birthright of freedom.”
Anyone who’s not an anarchist knows we need government, and a big country probably needs one that exceeds your average libertarian’s restrictive views on its proper scope.
Nevertheless, this nation was founded by people who wanted a political structure that maximized liberty and restrained state and federal power under a Constitution of “few and enumerated powers.”
But beginning in the mid-18th century, under the pressure of civil war and philosophical movements (generally called, strangely enough, “progressive”) that viewed collective action as nearly always superior to individualism, government grew in power and scope far beyond the boundaries established by the Founders.
We cannot entirely return to the Founders’ limited vision, but we are not constrained to say that the goals progressives have set for our nation are good, right or necessary, either — and we are most certainly entitled to oppose and defeat them, and roll back the nanny state to the maximum extent possible.
And that’s one of the principal things this presidential campaign is all about.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org