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Posted at 4:33 PM ET, 01/19/2011

Obama is a socialist, right?

By Stephen Stromberg

In the National Review, Kevin Williamson discusses the right's use of the term "socialist," and he dismisses those who protest that "that 'socialist' is being used as a mere smear word, empty of other content." But in 4,000 words, he doesn't really show that using the term in American politics can be much more than a semantic mugging of opponents.

He gets a little technical, but his definition of socialism comes down to something like this: It is state direction of otherwise private activity (the provision of non-public goods), such as education, using central planning. And in America, he argues, "regulation acts as a proxy for direct state ownership."

How far-reaching does the regulation have to be for it to qualify as socialist? Williamson doesn't say, allowing his readers to speculate with little encumbrance. And why, indeed, don't we call nearly every government ever a socialist one? Williamson does address this question:

As a practical matter, all modern governments engage in some public provision of non-public goods. That does not mean that every government is, in a meaningful sense, socialist, or that it would make sense to describe every government that maintains a public school or a public highway as socialist. There are questions of degree, and questions of judgment, and the answers to those questions will vary from case to case.

So you know a socialist when you see one?

Williamson provides a little more guidance: He insists that reverence for centralized state control can sort out the socialists from the non-socialists. But federal regulation is by definition centrally administered. Wait -- Williamson says -- it's centralized control in accordance with "THE PLAN" that is the hallmark of socialism. What "PLAN"? Williamson seems to say that "THE PLAN" is any time the state sets goals. In counseling school children to learn about science and math so they can help cure cancer and AIDS, Obama claims "a right of eminent domain over the lives of American children," "standardizing" them to serve the purposes of "THE PLAN," Williamson says. The implication is almost uselessly broad: Anyone who favors regulation with a purpose -- as opposed to regulation that is totally arbitrary? -- favors socialism. Maybe he means something else, but that's the argument he makes.

I admire Williamson's desire to develop a more limited and useful definition of socialism. But in doing so, he barely limits to what and to whom the word can conceivably apply. Williamson ends by instructing his readers to see socialism everywhere, a long-standing feature of American government, not just this White House. But he should have expanded on his better point, instead: There is a difference between a system in which there are socialized features and a socialist system. So, you can say that Obama favors some policies that could be thought of as socialist, as do most Americans. But can you claim that a centrist Democratic president -- who signed a Heritage Foundation-inspired health-care law, who expressed regret that the government stepped in to save the auto industry, and who just instructed his government to roll back federal regulation -- really favors a socialist system?

A similar sort of intellectual acrobatics underpinned Christine O'Donnell's claim that having an inheritance tax of any sort is a tenet of Marxism. Which is to say, I'm not convinced that this terminology clarifies the debate. These are still slippery epithets that encourage argument about semantics rather than substance. So, argue about whether Obama favors too much state control over industry, whether the stimulus was a down-payment on that, and so forth. But don't pretend as though the right's invocation of "socialist" is a clear, useful or even fair application of the term most of the time.

By Stephen Stromberg  | January 19, 2011; 4:33 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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To start with I do not agree with his definition of socialism. I taught economics at 2 universities, studied at 2 others and I must say I never heard that one before. Karl Marx surely did not ever hear it either. If you make up your own definitions if guess you can support most anything.

Posted by: withersb | January 19, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Socialism is the equal sharing of misery. Capitalism is the unequal sharing of happiness. Winston S. Churchill.

Socialism doesn't work, as sooner or later you run out of other peoples' money. Margaret Thatcher. Churchill and Thatcher should know.

Posted by: LETFREEDOMRING2 | January 19, 2011 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I have been doing editorial cartoons for thirty years in, arguably, the reddest state in the nation. It wasn't until two years ago that somebody called me a socialist. Now a day doesn't go by without being called a socialist/marxist/communist by phone, email, facebook . . . It's just plain and simple and meaningless name calling. I think Rush started calling Obama a socialist back in Oct. 2008—a charge so ludicrous that people like me treated it as a knee slapper. I guess some people don't know a joke when they hear one.

Posted by: newsraptor | January 19, 2011 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Look, we lived through years of Bush and Cheney being called fascists. Steve Cohen just called Republican House members a bunch of Nazis. This ship has sailed.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 19, 2011 6:25 PM | Report abuse

You're trying too hard. I read Williamson's piece as a casual riff on a theme. Conservatives consider "socialism" an indictment, while progressives vacillate between embracing or abjuring the term.

We need a term for centralized state control of society and "socialism" is handy.

Williamson notes control through regulation rather than ownership, and the social/economic engineering.

Political control is profoundly anathema to some of us.

Posted by: happyacres | January 19, 2011 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Now days any government involvement in the economy is considered socialism. It doesn't matter that government mostly contracts with established businesses to do the work. Tri-Care is a government run health-care system that along with providing the medical needs to our active duty service members also contracts with Humana to run the insurance provided to retired veterans and active-duty dependents. Yes, the active military part of Tri-Care almost exclusively uses government employees and active duty personal but to call Tri-Care socialism is just plain crazy talk. But, this is the way most of our government operates.
The so called entitlement programs like Social Security would more accurately be called benefit programs because we reap the benefits because we paid in to the system over our entire lifetime. Yes we are entitled to the benefits we earned. Calling Social Security socialism is plain crazy talk too.
If it were not for the government safety net programs and progressive taxation all the money in this free marketers wet dream would end up in the hands of a very few. Most Americans would be forced completely out of our economy into the underground or bartering. The American economy works most efficiently when the concentration of wealth is low and more Americans share in the great wealth of our nation, not just an elite few. Look at Somalia if you want to see a completely free market society without any government intervention.

Posted by: RMForbes | January 19, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Any nation or recognized regional organization of humans requires common goals, shared values, and unitized monetary systems. How can there be governance of society (hey, isn't society the root word in socialism?) without some measure of socialization? I don't know, and I don't think anyone else does either.

Whether we like it or not, we are not 300 million independent agent Americans. We declared our interdependence, established a constitutional form of government, and said we'd try to ford the streams of difference as we came to them. Now we begin to look like a bunch of pre-nation-state idiots trying to go back to pre-Revolution understandings of states. In the end, we'll waste a lot of energy and time without creating anything better than Franklin Roosevelt's America - probably not as good.

In the spectrum of Democrats, Pres. Obama is pretty much a centrist. He's also compassionate and surprisingly cares more about the America the middle and lower economic classes experience than the vast majority of people with his economic resources. He understands that the working person who is just making a living and those who are not quite and those who regard the "not-quites" with some envy are the people who make America's success. No, it's not the stars, the fabulously rich, the power-brokers who make America what it is. It is the neighborly, optimistic, fundamentally "social" members of our country that have always meant something different from anywhere else.

Yes, we middling Americans are being cheated. Our wages have stagnated or fallen, our jobs and businesses and careers have been sold to the lowest labor bidders, and our "news" boiled down to stale tid-bits that may or may not hold truth. Our Constitution has been brandished as a weapon as the stingy-hearted seek to deny protection of law by re-interpreting those broad statements of human entitlement through the eyes of some imaginary "founders."

I'm not saying everyone was paying attention in history and civics classes. But through a fairly long evolution of this country since 1776, we have come to know and understand certain things about our government and our rights. Will we discard those common knowings and embrace profit-motivated reinvention of our nation? If we are not more clear-eyed, that is the risk we take by proclaiming as leaders those whose interest is to expand the powers of business at the expense of citizens. This is forever the balance that societies have tried to set; it is the balance that tips tranquility and harmony into chaos and riot. Our present does not ensure our future, but we must think of the future to understand our needs in the present.

Posted by: Jazzman7 | January 19, 2011 9:15 PM | Report abuse

You can call Obama's agenda anything you want - liberal, progressive, socialism, marxism, communism, centrist, etc. What Obama's agenda represents is un-American. That is why so many Americans who want individual liberty and freedom to thrive or fail dislike Obama and the dems' agenda. At this time, Obama's administration is going over all the regulations and plans to use executive privilege to change any they deem unfit. He is circumventing congress, which in itself is anti-constitutional and therefore, un-American.

Why worry about what we call this man? Just get him out of our government in 2012 or before. He is the ruination of this great country.

Posted by: annnort | January 20, 2011 6:19 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: happyacres
We need a term for centralized state control of society and "socialism" is handy...Political control is profoundly anathema to some of us.
You should add: Political control by Democrats is profoundly anathema to some of us. Republican politicians have enacted their fair share of "socialist" programs. I bet you don't find it handy to put the socialist label on anything Republican.

Posted by: rgray | January 20, 2011 8:30 AM | Report abuse

From readings, the definition of socialism that I learned was centralized govenment ownership or control of private means of production. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospitals are not socialist functions because they are designed to be run by the federal government. But if private hospitals are so controlled and directed that even though they retain a "private" name and not a "Hospital Number 14" as per the old societ system, that their functions could not be distinguished from a government controlled system, then the system woudl be socialist.

Education. Good question. What is the means of production which would be otherwise developed by private groups?

Posted by: PALADIN7E | January 20, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Stromberg suffers from cranial-anial inversion on 'roids.

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | January 20, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Can't help but note that to those who ascribe to "state supported corporatism" (the definition of Fascism) ANYTHING more "socialist" that benefits individuals rather than corporations looks like "socialism."

To address one commenter above, if you want Republican "socialist" programs, look no further than DHS, TSA, TIA, and the rapid expansion of various intelligence agencies and a host of Pentagon programs all courtesy of the central gov't dole/control intended to interfere in the lives of individuals while rewarding corporate backers of military and intelligence "products."

I suppose it all boils down to this: Why is welfare for corporations (in the form of subsidies and tax breaks) called "economic policy" while assistance for individuals is called "socialism?"

Posted by: laughingcat | January 20, 2011 8:58 AM | Report abuse

I found "THE PLAN." Here's an excerpt:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Pretty diabolical, I must say. "Promote the general welfare," indeed.

Posted by: Ralphinjersey | January 20, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Sooo ... why isn't socialized heath and pension benefits for members of congress not called socialism?

Posted by: knjincvc | January 20, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Sooo ... why isn't socialized heath and pension benefits for members of congress not called socialism?

Posted by: knjincvc | January 20, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Because the thrift savings plan is owned by the Congressman? Because services under the Thrift Savings Plan, except for military TRICARE and similar services, are provided for by private insurance carriers?

Posted by: PALADIN7E | January 20, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

In Liberty & Tyranny, Mark Levin opted for the term "Statism" to describe the ever-expanding government agenda. That fits much better than Socialism.

Even if you finally disagree with Levin's arguments and conclusions, Liberty & Tyranny is a well-researched, well-documented view of American politics that is worth reading if only to understand the Conservative/Libertarian/Tea Party beliefs.

Posted by: pilsener | January 20, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

What the government of this nation has become is more fascist than socialist. We have government directed commerce but we retain private ownership of the means of production.

But either way I prefer the term Statist. It clearlt describes in one word the goals of both the Republicans and Democrats.

Posted by: BradG | January 20, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

As a society becomes more industrialized, urban, and complex the role of the state increases.

About a century ago, the Progressive Era, with both Demos and Reps taking part, decided that unregulated dog-eat-dog capitalism was not working. They saw that government had to intervene to stop the excesses that had plunged the nation in recession and depression. Between 1865-1900, the country experienced as many years of recession as it did progress.

Now, according to Glen Beck, this was the beginning of "socialism," and he hates Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson for their undoing of America.

Progressive Era reforms and New Deal reforms were essential to the health of the nation.

But some morons want to go back to the Gilded Age. As far as the distribution of wealth in this country we are already there.

In truth we are a mixed economy -- part capitalist and part socialist.

Government ownership of land a criteria for socialism? Then we are the biggest socialist country in the world.

Social Security -- a government run program for the elderly. Medicare, Medicaid, ditto. The Tennessee Valley Authority project, ditto. Federal Trade Commission, SEC, FDA -- government run programs to regulate the capitalist system. Hoover Dam, and all those hydroelectric dams built in the West during the 1930's? Ditto.

Only in America is socialism a dirty word. Grow up, America.

Posted by: okiedeadhead | January 20, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

WaPo the headline for this article is insulting/demeaning/lie and just downright stupid for a major newspaper.

Posted by: rlj1 | January 20, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Mr Obama is not a Socialist, he is a Progressive Statist, whereas Bush43 was a Neocon (not Conservative - big difference) Statist.

Posted by: Erisian | January 20, 2011 10:00 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Mr Obama is not a Socialist, he is a Progressive Statist, whereas Bush43 was a Neocon Statist. POTUS44 seems to think that big gubmint is the only way to ensure "social justice", while POTUS43 felt that big gubmint was the only answer to security and military expansionism.

Posted by: Erisian | January 20, 2011 10:05 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for screwed up posts above, malfunctioning fingers.

Posted by: Erisian | January 20, 2011 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Back in the day, the words that would have been used were "Communist" or "Red." For some reason, today's Neo-Birchers have switched to "socialist" and "Marxist." I guess Communists just don't inspire the same superstitious dread they used to.

Posted by: EthelredtheUnready | January 20, 2011 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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