Is Obama a Socialist?

About 40 percent of Americans are hard-core Republicans and 40 percent are hard-core Democrats. The way to capture the White House is to appeal to the 20 percent who are often called “independents.”

So the Antiplanner was puzzled after the Democratic convention when Obama’s acceptance speech was so clearly oriented to the left wing, while McCain’s vice-presidential pick was so clearly oriented to the right wing. How, I wondered, will either of them capture the center that way?

The answer today is clear. Obama’s acceptance speech committed him to nothing; he could go out and give more centrist-oriented speeches and sweep up the independents.

In contrast, by choosing Palin, McCain committed himself to the right wing. Sure, Palin “energized the base” of the Republican Party, but that only meant that 40 percent of the public will vote for McCain-Palin. Selecting Palin also meant selecting Palin’s rhetoric, such as claims that Obama “pals around” with terrorists and that he is a socialist.

Pollsters say that Obama benefitted from the economic downturn, as more voters trust McCain on international relations while more trust Obama on the economy. Yet it is the other way around with me, as I suspect Obama can restore our standing in the international community but I fear his economic policies will ruin the nation. If McCain had been able to convey a better economic message, he might have been able to make that case.

Instead, the McCain-Palin campaign focused on the “S” word, “socialist.” The problem with the S word is that it is obsolete: very few people (aside from a few fringe elements) are true socialists anymore. So it has become a word used only by enemies of socialism, not its friends.

Today, people like Obama describe themselves as “social democrats.” They will say they believe in the free market, but they will add that they also believe government action is needed to provide a safety net and to keep unscrupulous capitalists from taking advantage of downtrodden workers and consumers. They don’t want to nationalize industries (the hallmark of socialism), but they do want to put lots of constraints and controls on most if not all industries (an idea sometimes called corporatism).

When you call a social democrat a socialist, it is like calling a paleoconservative a neoconservative. Someone on the left might not be able to tell the difference between a paleo and a neo, but those on the right find the differences so huge and fundamental as to be totally unbridgeable. Similarly, leftists snigger when you confuse socialists and social democrats, while those on the right find the two indistinguishable.

The point being, of course, that using the S word meant that McCain-Palin were still, in the last days of the election, playing to their base and not to the center. That’s definitely a losing strategy.

McCain-Palin claimed that an interview Obama gave in 2001 proved he was a socialist. In the interview, Obama said that the civil rights movement had made a “tragic” mistake in focusing on the courts, because the Supreme Court gave blacks the right to vote but refused to “venture into the issues of redistribution of wealth.” If only the civil rights movement had done more “political and community organizing” (Obama’s early career), they would have been able to “bring about redistributive change.”

The Obama campaign appeared quick to deny that Obama was endorsing redistribution of incomes. But actually, what they denied was that Obama thinks that “the courts should get into the business of redistributing wealth.” He obviously doesn’t: he considers that the job of Congress and the state legislatures. But he clearly endorses wealth redistribution — which is, after all, part of the social democrat agenda (which also includes caps on incomes).

McCain-Palin missed a big opportunity here. Instead of saying, “this proves Obama is a socialist,” they should have said, “Obama wants to take your hard-earned income and give it to someone who didn’t work for it. How will money be redistributed? From whites to blacks? From rich to poor? No, historically, almost every program for redistributing income has ended up taking from the poor and middle classes and giving to the rich, because the rich are the ones who have the political power to influence the programs. Is that what you want?”

Calling Obama a socialist firmed up support on the right. Attacking Obama’s social democrat agenda might have gained support from the center.

To use an example near and dear to the Antiplanner’s heart, Obama favors smart growth, a planning concept that holds, among other things, that government planners representing “the community” can redefine your property rights at any time. McCain-Palin could have used this to stir up some of the anti-eminent domain sentiment that followed the Kelo decision. Instead, they relied on tired old code words like “socialist” (and newer code words like “terrorist”).

Most of the Obamacons who have turned away from McCain have done so because they are alienated by this divisive rhetoric. As The Economist said in its endorsement of Obama, the only way centrists could vote for McCain is “on the assumption that he does not believe a word of what he has been saying.”

It was a hard decision, but the Antiplanner finally mailed in a vote for McCain based precisely on this assumption. As I have said before, my heart wants Obama to win, but my head tells me he will be a disaster for our economy — and right now the economy appears to be the most serious issue of this particular moment in time.

Of course, it is entirely possible that we shouldn’t believe all the things Obama has been saying about redistribution of wealth, government control of health care, and government planning. The difference is that Obama has been saying those things for years, while McCain’s message and actions until very recently tended to be fiscally conservative and (at least on some issues) socially liberal.

It has been clear for weeks now that Obama is going to win. His first actions in office will likely include an “economic stimulus” package that focus on “infrastructure.” As a result, bureaucrats throughout the nation will try to position their pet projects to look like “infrastructure.” It is hard to predict how Obama is going to sort them out, but I am not optimistic that I will agree with his reasoning.

Obama has said that he wants to create a new New Deal. The problem with that is that the old New Deal prolonged the Depression by several years: The U.S. was still in a depression long after Europe had recovered, and unemployment in 1938 was higher than in 1931. The Antiplanner’s fear is that Obama’s policies will prolong the current recession through the next eight years.

I have a strong suspicion that libertarian writer Virginia Postrel is correct when she says, “Obama is not a sunny FDR or JFK. He’s not a Ronald Reagan, expecting a pony in a room of manure. He assumes that any pony will have died of suffocation and worries that the horseless carriage has thrown stable hands permanently out of work.”

Still, in the long run, our international standing may be more important than current economic conditions, and Obama is more likely to restore that standing than McCain. Perhaps providing inspiration to young blacks and other minorities to realize that they can get a fair opportunity in our country is more important than getting out of the current doldrums. If these are true, and I hope they are, then Obama will be a great president.

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27 thoughts on “Is Obama a Socialist?

  1. John Thacker

    As The Economist said in its endorsement of Obama, the only way centrists could vote for McCain is “on the assumption that he does not believe a word of what he has been saying.”

    That’s odd, it took me more than once to read it that way, because certainly the same statement applies to Sen. Obama. I’m not sure how the Economist could recommend Obama unless it was “on the assumption that he does not believe a word of what he has been saying,” about farm subsidies, protectionism and free trade, “card check,” his ridiculous “Patriot Corporation Act” and increasing taxation of US companies’ overseas activities (and thus forcing them to divest overseas subsidiaries or move their headquarters), and a host of other issues supposedly important to the Economist. Of course, since his votes have been consistently protectionist and pro-farm subsidy in Congress, one has to assume that not only the rhetoric is a lie, but also that his votes have been just pandering.

    I’m not going to call that necessarily centrist, though. Economic populism is often popular; a person can favor protectionism, ethanol subsidies, farm subsidies, and so on and be centrist. It’s arguably more radical to oppose them, since a majority of people support such policies. It’s certainly helped Sen. Obama with the farm and rural vote.

    The Economist claimed in their endorsement that Sen. Obama had moved to the center by changing his Iraq policy from withdrawal as soon as possible to withdrawal based on conditions. Some people have indeed gotten that impression, but Sen. Obama has (been forced by other supporters?) to disavow that impression.

    I think it’s clear that some supporters are going to be disappointed either way. Sen. Obama reminds me of no one so much as Sen. Moynihan, for his tendency to be familiar with conservative and libertarian arguments, to sound open to those ideas, and to even produce speeches that sound conservative or libertarian– but then vote party line social democrat every time.

  2. werdnagreb

    Randal, this is why I like reading your column. Even though I don’t agree with most of what you say, you (often) back it up with thought and reason. If anyone could convince me of the dangers of planning, it would be you. So far, it hasn’t worked. But please keep trying.

  3. Ettinger

    Is Obama a socialist?

    No, Obama is not a socialist in the old sense of the word. He cannot be in 21st century America. And even some of his tax proposals, bad as they may be, can be ultimately and painfully reversed if they turn out to be bad, like they have been reversed in the past.

    But make no mistake, things like the creation of a National Helth Insurance Exchange will not be reversible and will clearly set us on a path to socialized medicine. In that respect, even if he is not a socialist he is setting strong irreversible foundations towards socialism.

    In America, the proportion of the economy controlled by government has been ever increasing since America’s foundation in 1776 (the big bang when government entropy was almost 0). Progressive governments have brought about periods of greatly accelerated government expansion while conservatives have merely stalled expansion, not reversed it. Government has never shrunk in the United States since its creation. Am I wrong?

    If I had one thing to say about this election I’d repeat the central observation from my parallel lives in Europe and the US:

    When I see Western Europe, I see a continent comprised of very smart and capable people whoose competence is being squandered by a collectivist social democratic environment. How are dumb Americans going to compete under a similar collectivist social democratic system?

    I would like to take this last paragraph, bury it in a glass container and dig it up in 30-50 years.

    The American public underestimates how hard it is to be, say, German in Germany. It demands a very high level of aggregate personal competence, which, I’m sorry to say, the average American does not posses. But if Germany is what Americans aspire to, go ahead. Hope that the socialist democratic environment will raise the overall aggregate competence of Americans to German levels – to then squander it on social democratic policies. There is no American way, American know how that will create a better more effcient version of social democracy.

  4. Ettinger

    AP: Still, in the long run, our international standing may be more important than current economic conditions, and Obama is more likely to restore that standing than McCain.

    I tend to disagree with this assessment, not because international standing is not important but because not much can be realistically done about our bad international standing, so long as we remain the subject of the envy associated with being the most successful and only remaining superpower.

    That envy is primarily the root cause which instills a justifiable fear and resentment to the rest of the world. And it will not stop until we start to decline or a serious competitor appears to threaten our #1 status. While 8 years under social democratic rule will set us on a path to loosing our dominant standing in the world, the process is unlikely to be completed in 8 years. So, if Obama wins, the most likely outcome will be a temporary improvement in America’s International standing, after which, decline in standing will resume – but, if Obama wins, we can have this discussion again in 8 years.

  5. StevePlunk

    My respect for the Antiplanner is not diminished by what I see as two errors in his position.

    As others have pointed out our standing in the international community is based more on envy than anything else. Rather than emulate the reasons for our success others have chosen instead to denigrate us because of our success. Parts of the world will see an Obama administration as weak and undeserving of respect. That combination of jealousy and disrespect could prove very dangerous.

    The second disagreement is the use of the heart as a tool for political judgment. The head is where the decision is to be made not the heart. The heart or emotions should be pushed aside by rational thought. To allow the heart to make decisions or even play a significant part of the decision making process will do us no good in a cruel world.

    Lastly a few words about the use of “socialist”. To expedite political discourse short cut words must be used and socialist is one of those words. There is no doubt Obama will pull this country in that general direction and that he believes in the basic principle of wealth redistribution. He also knows that reality will check many of his beliefs but he will move toward greater government control of the economy and higher taxes. Unless we want to invent a thousand different words for all the positions on the political and economic spectrum we must fall back to the general purpose words that have been traditionally used.

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    I must remind readers that the word socialist does not equal communist, even though the old Soviet Union was formally called Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in English.

    The Nordic part of Europe, which I am most familiar, has long-standing traditions of Social Democrats involved in governance. Sweden has been under Social Democratic governments for most years since 1932 (though they are currently not in the government).

    Since the economic crisis of the early 1990’s, many policies followed by the Socialist government in power from 1994 through 2006 are much more free-market oriented than what we find in most of the United States. They carried out an aggressive program of privatizing services formerly run by public employees in areas such as mass transit (there are essentially no public-sector employees running transit buses or rail vehicles anywhere in Sweden today) and telephone (now privatized into a company called Telia-Sonera). The taxicab industry in Sweden has been freed of government barriers to entry (no New York City-style system of taxicab medallions), and fares are set by the taxi operators, not government fiat.

    Read more about Milton Friedman’s impact on Sweden in this op-ed in the English-language Swedish news site The Local: http://www.thelocal.se/5619/20061127/

    Readers of this blog may be more familiar with Great Britain, where the socialist Labour Party (first under Tony Blair, now under current Prime Minister Gordon Brown) has been in power since 1997, when they knocked the Tory Party out of power. 1997 was the first time since Mrs. Margaret Thatcher’s years as Prime Minister that Labour was in power. What’s important to note that Labour has not un-done any of the privatizations (examples include airports and transit bus service) that were accomplished under Thatcher.

    So advocates of free (and freer) markets in the U.S. might consider that Socialists (at least Socialists in power in Europe) would be more effective at furthering the cause of economic freedom than our own Republicans and Democrats.

  7. MarketStEl

    I have to second the poster who complimented Randal on always being thoughtful and basing his arguments on solid evidence. I too do not agree with all his arguments, but I ignore them at my peril.

    I noted recently that some scholars conducted a study about the performance of the economy through various administrations and concluded that it did best when Democrats controlled the Presidency and Republicans ran the Congress. I believe that has happened only twice in the last century: during Harry S Truman’s first term (balance of the late FDR’s fourth) and the last six years of the Clinton Administration.

    Given that record, I’m inclined to argue that we should elect Obama President and then give him a Republican Congress if things go too badly off the rails in the first two years of his term.

    And I would not want to discount the value his election will have in closing one long, painful yet hopeful chapter in our national history and opening another, one in which the racial grievancemongers have less to grieve over.

  8. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Highwayman wrote:

    > Though there are already passenger rail operations in North America that are put out to tender and that
    > have private sector staff running them.
    >
    > http://www.veoliatransportation.com/Rail.aspx

    Agreed. Funny that the image at the top of this page is a station (Odenplan, I believe) on the Stockholm, Sweden tunnelbana (subway), which is run by Veolia’s subsidiary Connex (http://www.connex.nu/tmpl/ExtensionPage.aspx?id=2776&epslanguage=ML).

  9. msetty

    You’ll get no argument from me that most if not all transit systems should be put out to bid for operations, such as in Sweden. However, I also think expecting transit systems to “break even” any time soon in the U.S. is a pipe dream, in light of

    (a) the low density urban environment created by 90 years of government favoritism towards automobiles can be mitigated by implementing market-based pricing of local government-mandated parking, congestion fees, and so forth;

    (b) proper pricing of the externalities of auto travel such as medical care not covered by auto insurance, the impact of emissions fees, military protection of imported oil, and so forth; and

    and c), substantial elimination of low density exclusionary zoning, the thing that has actually contributed to high housing prices in U.S. coastal areas, NOT Smart Growth and New Urbanism as Randal routinely claims. In other words, realistically dealing with the problems of excessive “automobility,” e.g., too many damn cars in our urban areas, as I’ve posted here before many times.

  10. msetty

    Here’s a relevant example of a Obama-supporting “progressive” who has a strong desire to see the residential and commercial land markets in greater Washington, D.C., work.

    …In a normal free market situation, the result of the appreciation in value of that land would be for more of those [currently single family] lots to be redeveloped as higher-density properties. That would make housing more affordable, and you would therefore get more economic and ethnic diversity. But we don’t have a free market, instead we have a market that’s highly regulated. The result:

    Arlington has done better than Alexandria, thanks to its aggressive efforts to take full advantage of its Metro resources, but both provide nowhere near enough housing to meet demand. For most of the housing boom, new permits in Arlington and Alexandria fell well below those issued in outer suburbs (in 2003, Arlington and Alexandria approved 7 and 72 new units, respectively, while the outer burbs were adding between 4,000 and 6,000 each. Only in 2006, when the huge inventory additions of the housing boom began to come through the pipeline, did the two inner municipalities rival their outer suburb neighbors.

    The result? Prices in the inner burbs started the bust much higher than prices in the outer burbs and they’ve fallen less. The housing bust increased the relative price of the inner suburbs.

    The way for jurisdictions such as these to show that they really value diversity would be to allow for the development of more units. But of course some jurisdictions may really not value diversity. And there’s the rub. Policies that limit denser development in Arlington and Alexandria are arguably good policies for current homeowners in those areas. But they’re very bad policies for the region as a whole and for the country.

    Read the whole thing, and the comments.

  11. John Thacker

    Oh, I know about Yglesias’s post above, and I agree with it. Of course, “here’s something said by someone who’s voting for Obama” is not the same thing as Sen. Obama saying it either. You’ll find that Yglesias also is very much against our sugar quota/tariff system, but Sen. Obama is a big supporter, for example.

    Certainly in this country politicians have to say things I disagree with to be elected. From a libertarian perspective, I can see voting for Sen. Obama because he seems less likely to actually mean what he says, whereas Sen. McCain seems to seem fairly earnest when he says them.

  12. the highwayman

    Mr. Setty I fully agree, the social engineering done by the highway lobby over almost the past 100 years hasn’t made things better off for America.

  13. C. P. Zilliacus

    the highwayman wrote:

    > Also for that matter the Arlanda Express has an interesting air-rail operation.
    >
    > http://www.arlandaexpress.com/
    >
    > I’m a conservative after all, I’d like to see more private sector involvement with mass transit and less
    > government involvement with roads. More tolls and less income taxes.

    It’s interesting to note (as Vin Scully, a longtime radio announcer for baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers might put it)
    that Arlanda Express is owned by Macquarie Bank (see http://www.macquarie.com/uk/about_macquarie/media/20040115.htm),
    which also makes investments in toll road projects around the world.

    And unlike Virginia’s Dulles Rail project, Arlanda Express has exactly zero station stops between the airport
    and the “City” area of Stockholm (e.g. downtown Stockholm).

  14. the highwayman

    Well an other idea for building a rail link to Dulles would be to restore the W&OD line with a spur in the middle of Hwy. 267 into the airport, then trains could be ran directly to Union Station in DC.

    There could also be a mix of local and express service on the line.

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