Stanley Kurtz has decided that Barack Obama is a socialist — a case he makes in his forthcoming book: Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism. But what does socialism mean? Many Europeans call themselves socialist, but mean only that they support the mixed economies which every advanced country has, including the United States. Sweden, often thought of as either a socialist utopia or nightmare, depending upon your perspective, actually has a robust private economy — indeed, almost all production is in the hands of privately held companies, just like in the United States. Taxes are much higher than in our country — certainly on the wealthy — and are used to fund a far greater array of public goods and services. But that is only a difference of degree, not kind, from the policies of every developed country from Canada to Australia, and including all of Western Europe. Indeed, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and even Mitt Romney might be said to be socialist by this standard because they support government augmented programs to provide universal health insurance. And what about George W. Bush? After all, it was Bush who signed into law the Medicare Part D bill, the largest extension of the welfare state in American history. And Medicare is, in fact, a single payer system for the elderly.
Kurtz has decided that Obama is a socialist because, according to Kurtz, Obama favors a secret, incremental path to full nationalization of the economy. This is a difficult argument for Kurtz to sustain, because nothing Obama has ever written or proposed as a politician supports the allegation. Instead, in a recent post on National Review Online, Kurtz fastens on Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson as a kind of ideological doppelganger for Obama. Kurtz notes that, in his most recent column, Meyerson proposes various policies that are pretty much standard parts of the Democratic party program–including, wait for it… criticism of big business. As a clinching detail, Kurtz observes that Meyerson (we’ve lost Obama altogether in this analysis, but, no matter, Kurtz seems to think that Meyerson and Obama are co-conspirators) is the vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
According to Kurtz, “Meyerson’s support for these Democratic initiatives could be taken as a sign that some socialists agree with conservatives. That is, sophisticated socialists and conservatives alike believe that America can be pushed into socialism by degrees. Actual existing American socialists (of the sophisticated “non-sectarian” variety typified by the DSA) don’t go around demanding full nationalization of the economy at a blow. On the contrary, they offer support to those Democratic Party initiatives most likely to bring about a socialist transformation in the long term.”
Yes, that’s sounds brilliantly plausible–why would these DSA types actually announce their nefarious intentions? But the key words from Kurtz’s remarks above are these: “could be taken….” Those three words do a lot of work in Kurtz’s analysis. Yes, it “could be taken” that mainstream liberals and Democrats like Meyerson and Obama are biding their time, waiting for the moment when, over the outraged protests of Congress, the Courts, the media, and the American people they impose a massive nationalization of the American economy (I guess Kurtz thinks this will happen by executive order — or maybe he thinks that Congress, etc. will go along with the nationalization — in which case it would be a catastrophe, but a fully democratically enacted catastrophe. He doesn’t say). And it also “could be taken” that Barack Obama is a giraffe if he had four legs, was very very tall, and covered with spots. But Obama doesn’t have any of those characteristics, so he’s not a giraffe. Similarly, Obama, Meyerson, and American liberals at large “could be taken” to fervently believe in the insane and disastrous fantasy that the United States should have a fully nationalized economy. But they don’t — and Kurtz would be hard pressed to find 1,000 Americans (and no influential ones at any level of society) who believe this nuttery — not now, and not in the avowedly to be hoped for future. Kurtz claims that “sophisticated” socialists “don’t go around demanding full nationalization of the economy at a blow….” But if nobody ever makes such a proposal, how can Kurtz prove his point?
What Kurtz doesn’t explain to his readers — perhaps because he doesn’t know himself — is that the DSA is not only without any influence whatsoever, a letterhead masquerading as an organization, but was also created out of a merger between a group called the New American Movement, composed of advocates of early New Left decentralization and “participatory democracy” (the exact opposite of nationalization tout court), and Michael Harrington’s group, the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee. Harrington, a friend of Bill Buckley’s and his foil in numerous televised debates, was a basic Social Democrat of the kind that frequently run the governments of almost every Western European country (I know, I know—“it could be taken” that these European social democrats want to fully nationalize their economies too). Harrington spent his life fighting Stalinism and the Soviet Union generally, both because it was a moral monstrosity, and because of its absurd, dysfunctional economic model. DSA, whatever it may be, is as opposed to full nationalization of the economy as much as Stanley Kurtz is.
Meyerson’s politics, similar to Harrington’s but with a particular interest in the support of the labor movement, have nothing to do with the fantasy that Kurtz has imputed to him, and if you don’t believe me, you can review his voluminous writings for yourself. If you’re a conservative, what you will find is the kind of political and economic program you will oppose, but nothing that remotely has anything to do with “the full nationalization of the economy.” Needless to say, Obama — somebody who has published a good deal for a politician and with his own pen — has never advocated such a program either. Or one can examine his time in the Illinois and U.S. Senate to investigate whether he ever proposed the nationalization of the American economy.
There’s a good essay to be written about the almost demented anxiety, verging on paranoia, that a mainstream American liberal named Barack Obama has evoked among American conservatives. Stanley Kurtz seems to be in a good position to write that essay — beginning perhaps with a long conversation with the face he sees in the mirror every morning.