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Why Obama's the Least Socialistic President in Modern History (And That's a Shame)

If the nation were governed by a referendum of Republican voters it would be more "socialistic" than it has been under President Obama.

The Republican presidential candidates keep calling Barack Obama a socialist. If they're trying to invoke the Red Menace like Republicans of past campaigns, they're a generation too late. Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 have no memory of the Cold War. Today they have a more positive impression of socialism than they do of capitalism.

The word “socialism” can be applied to a range of economic models, from Cuban collectivism to the Western European social democracies that are the home of some of the world's most successful corporations.

But until this election came along it had never been used to describe someone who expanded the private health insurance system, let a negligent company keep control of the cleanup for an environmental disaster it caused, offered to cut retirement and elder health benefits, and repeatedly insisted that the government should cut costs. This president is less socialistic than most of his predecessors, including many Republicans.

The irony is that socialist-inspired policies are popular with Americans, including many Republicans, even if the label is not. Polls suggest that a more “socialist” Obama would also be a more popular candidate, and the same is true of his opponents.


The word “socialism” is used to describe a spectrum of possible economies ranging from the Scandinavian model, where government involvement co-exists with multinational corporations, to the more communistic Cuban model and the idealistic anarcho-syndicalism of the anti-Franco insurgents in the Spanish Civil War.

The social democracy model emphasizes expanded public rights to social services and a more distributive tax base, but leaves ownership of production in capitalist hands. This form of socialism has had a major influence on the governments and economies of Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Finland. It hasn't interfered with the success of multinational corporations like Mercedes-Benz, Nokia, Deutschebank, Barclays Bank, or Ferrari.

Socialist ideas have a long history in the United States. Socialist and left-leaning parties were the first to propose a number of ideas that are now considered core American ideals, including civil rights, antipoverty programs, Social Security and Medicare.

The Pink Menace

But socialism was once linked with the Soviet Union, America's nuclear foe, which gave it an aura of treachery and danger it no longer posseses.

The Republicans who call Obama a socialist are using a GOP tactic that reached its zenith in Richard Nixon's 1950 Senate victory against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon supporters handed out thousands of “Pink Sheet” flyers that year comparing his opponent's voting record to that of socialist-leaning New York City Representative Vito Marcantonio. Marcantonio ran on the American Labor Party ticket and belonged to several groups that were regarded as “red.”

Douglas considered Nixon's actions thuggery, as did a number of other Americans in both parties. She called him as “a young man in a dark shirt,” which was an indirect allusion to the fascists the US had been fighting five years before. (Upon hearing her remark, Nixon displayed an odd unfamiliarity with human anatomy. “Why, I'll castrate her!” the future president said. He also described Douglas as “pink right down to her underwear.”)

Douglas found it hard to believe these attacks could be effective, and some people think her delay in responding to them cost her the election. But they did, and this set the tone for the next six decades of GOP campaigns.


Newt Gingrich was the first of the current crop of contenders to attack Obama with the socialist label, as political writer John Nichols reminded me in a recent interview. Gingrich published a book last year titled To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. Gingrich's publisher called it a “dire warning for America,” which is “at risk for its very survival” after electing “the most liberal president ever.”

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