Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Socialist or not a socialist?

Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal today demonstrates, again, his fundamental disconnectedness from reality.
There was lots of bad news for Democrats in a poll released last week by Democracy Corps, the well-known liberal consultancy, but the factoid that captured my attention was an item buried deep in the report. After recording likely voters' views on whether President Barack Obama could be described as "too liberal" or "a big spender," the pollsters found that fully 55% of them believed the term "socialist" fit the president well.

An immediate objection: No, it doesn't.
An immediate counter-assertion: Yes, it does.

But don't take my word for it. Instead of arguing by assertion here, let's go to the dictionary and find a definition. Here's the OED:
A theory or system of social organization based on state or collective ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange for the common benefit of all members of society; advocacy or practice of such a system, esp. as a political movement. Now also: any of various systems of liberal social democracy which retain a commitment to social justice and social reform, or feature some degree of state intervention in the running of the economy.
Yeah, works for me. Does any of that fit President Obama well? Decide for yourself, but don't assert that "it doesn't" and expect me to just acquiesce. I think it fits him just fine.
If the president were actually a socialist in the Western European sense,
Well hold on right there, Mr. Frank. You're changing the terms of the discussion. Did the poll ask if the term "socialist in the Western European sense" fit the president well? No it did not. So you're engaged in changing the terms of the discussion in order to argue that the people calling the president a socialist are, what? Uneducated? Ill-bred? Stupid? Certainly, starting this way reeks of attempted marginalization. Based on my prior understanding of your work, Mr. Frank, this surprises me not even a little bit.
he would certainly have pushed for single-payer health care,
Well, he would have if he were a socialist and an idiot. There was no way that the US Congress was going to pass a single-payer plan last year, so he did the much smarter thing, and passed a plan that puts the US on a road in which a single-payer plan is inevitable, because the insurance companies are going to be essentially regulated out of existence. The fact is, he's in favor of single-payer, he's said so many times over the years, and the public option that he did push for is a trojan horse designed to lead to it. A smart and patient socialist is still a socialist.
he would surely have gotten tough with the banks during the financial crisis,
Instead of doing...what, exactly? Co-opting them, increasing regulation of them, publically threatening them? He's not a dictator, Mr. Frank. In order to "get tough with the banks" he needs to have laws and regulations to work with. They're going to vote, and apparently pass, just such laws this week, and write scores of thousands of pages of new regulations.
and he would undoubtedly have launched a massive program of public works instead of last year's halfhearted stimulus package.
Again, there's an enormous difference between "socialist" and "all-powerful socialist dictator." The idea that the President, if he were inclined, could just will into existence a "massive program of public works" without laws being passed, and funds being allocated, by the Congress is the kind of notion that arouses Tom Friedman, but it isn't reality. (And I'll just ignore, for now, the description of the "stimulus" bill as "halfhearted." "Ill-advised," "poorly-conceived," "pork-laden," yes. "Halfhearted?" What, do you think we'd be in better shape now if the government had spent more money that we don't have?)

So the fact that the things that the president has done are less extreme measures than might qualify as "true" or "full" "socialism" in your mind, Mr. Frank, says nothing whatsoever about his attitudes or opinions, and are worthless as arguments against the charge of "socialism." Politics is the art of the possible. If you want to claim that "socialist" doesn't fit the president well, it isn't enough to say, "he did x and y would be more socialist." You've got to be able to say that "he did x and y, which was also possible would be more socialist." You've done nothing of the kind here. Your defense is akin to saying that a man who broke a bank window at night, smashed a couple of cash registers, took the money from the cash drawers, and ran away, isn't a fit for the term "bank-robber" because he didn't bring dynamite to blow open the safe.
Instead he consistently chooses solutions that a more innocent age called "market-oriented," always while seeking to placate this industry or that.
Wait a minute - you mean a politician played politics?

Hmm... No, that doesn't seem to make your argument any more compelling.
Yesterday he even appointed a former hedge fund manager to run his Office of Management and Budget.
And that proves that he's not a socialist, exactly? And if we're going to play the "he appointed" game, how about Van Jones? And what does the recess appointment of Donald Berwick say? Socialist or not a socialist?
Another thing to consider: The pollsters didn't define the word "socialist." Many Americans, in my experience, think it means someone who supports basic welfare-state provisions like unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security -- a standard by which socialism is immensely popular and most politicians fit the description.
In my experience, there are two kinds of Americans.
  1. Those who don't think of unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security as "socialism."
  2. Those who do think of unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security as "socialism," and strongly disapprove.
I suspect that the number in either group who would profess to be "socialists" or look favorably on "socialism" is, if not vanishingly small, then at least much smaller than you think it is.
Even so, the news must please the right. For almost two years now, their favorite entertainers and wise men have been trying to make "socialism" the political curse-word of the day, the mark of the ideological alien, and now here comes confirmation that their improbable crusade has partially succeeded.
Did you ever notice that, when you buy a new car, you start seeing a lot of them on the highway? Your perception of that car changes, and you become aware of it, and you notice it every time you see one, whereas before, it was just another car. I think, Mr. Frank, that your perception of the "socialist" accusation is heightened, because you are afraid that he really is one, and you know that you really are one, and you know that the American people don't approve, so you shun the label. I haven't seen any evidence of a "crusade" to label Obama a socialist.
The John Birch Society could never persuade the public that President Eisenhower was really a communist agent, but this time the trick has worked -- and even without the Soviets around to give the thing a modicum of plausibility.
If it's that implausible, then this should be a very easy question for you, but let me just ask this: in what ways has Barack Obama demonstrated that he is less of a "socialist" than the Senator from Vermont, avowed "socialist" Bernie Sanders?


Yes, you're right, there are no ways. If Bernie Sanders is a socialist, then so is Barack Obama (and at least half of the current Democratic congressional delegation.)

There's more, but what's the point? He goes on to say the same thing, over and over again, with the same evidence (none) over and over again. It's a waste of time.

But I read it, so you don't have to...

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