Is President Obama a socialist?

Campaign season is starting to rev up which means we might hear claims of President Obama or other prominent Democrats being card-carrying socialists of some kind or another. A quick Google search reveals a plethora of answers to this question. Here’s my take:

Whether or not President Obama is a socialist all depends on what you accept as the definition of “socialism.” In my Introduction to Politics course at Centre College, we spend nearly two weeks looking at the different primary forms of socialism that have existed over the last two centuries and then another day discussing the extent to which the Obama administration fits the qualifications for any one of these different forms. The five types of socialism that we discuss are:

  1. Socialism as a philosophical set of values and goals
  2. Socialism as classical Marxism
  3. Socialism as Marxist-Leninist authoritarian/totalitarian communism
  4. Socialism as European “social democracy”
  5. Socialism as “anything I happen to dislike”

1. Socialism as a philosophical set of values and goals. All political ideologies are, at their core, merely sets of ideas. The ideas that make up socialist philosophy, according to scholar Andrew Heywood, include the priority of community over individuality, cooperation over conflict, equality over freedom, a focus on social class as a meaningful unit of analysis, and a commitment to common ownership of productive wealth and ‘capital’ in a society.

2. Socialism as classical Marxism. Karl Marx introduced his own version of socialism that explained the progress of human history as a result of the conflict between the upper- and lower-classes (he called it “dialectical materialism”). He predicted that this conflict would eventually cease when the lower-class eventually succeeded in throwing off the upper-class for good and a communist utopia would reign forever. In the meantime, Marx advocated the formation of Communist political parties to compete democratically at the ballot box to achieve short-term socialist objectives.

3. Socialism as Marxist-Leninist authoritarian/totalitarian communism. Lenin further revised both socialism and Marxism. He argued that Marx’s revolution would not happen gradually and would need to be imposed forcefully by a small cadre of professional revolutionaries (the “vanguard of the proletariat”). Further, contra Marx, the state was seen as a tool to oppress the upper-class on the behalf of the lower-class, thus resulting in Soviet-style authoritarian communism that oppressed personal freedoms and forced state management of the means of production in the economy.

4. Socialism as European social democracy. Since the end of the Cold War and the success of the Third Way in England, “socialism” in Europe has essentially meant liberal democratic free-market capitalism with a slightly more expansive welfare state and a “mixed economy,” which is state ownership and management of a few select sectors of the economy deemed to be in the public good (transportation, telecommunications, etc.). In other words, the only remaining “socialism” in today’s world (popular in France, Germany, and much the rest of Europe) rejects 95% of the values and ideas that socialism as a philosophy is based on (see #1) and has accepted free-market capitalism as the only reliable means of generating wealth in society. 

5. Socialism as “anything I happen to dislike.” Because of a misunderstanding of items #1 – #4 described above, many news pundits, politicians, and concerned citizens use the word “socialism” to mean any particular ideology or political position that they happen to disapprove of. Of the five options listed here, this is the only one that fails to meet academic (or even linguistic) standards of legitimacy.

The problem is that the word “socialism” can legitimately mean any of items #1 – #4 described above. So when someone says “President Obama is a socialist” it could potentially mean any of those four things. Given that item #4 (European “social democracy”) is the only remaining version of socialism remaining in the mainstream spectrum of global politics, I argue that it should be the default version assume when the word “socialism” is used.

Just for fun, let’s go through the five definitions and see how President Obama scores on each of these.

1. Socialism as a philosophical set of values and goals. By all objective standards, Barack Obama, as an American liberal, does not prioritize community over individuality, cooperation over conflict, or equality over freedom. He does not see social class as the only meaningful unit of political analysis, and he does not advocate for common ownership of productive wealth and ‘capital’ in a society. Thus, he does not embody socialism as a philosophy. Now, in the trade-off between these competing values (community/individuality, cooperation/conflict, equality/freedom), he certainly does tend to favor the social values slightly more so than modern American conservatives do. However, it would be very hard to make the argument, based on all available evidence, that the scale is tipped in the socialist direction on any one of those. Further, if you ask the leader of the Democratic Socialists of America, he says that President Obama is definitely not one of them, and even implies that he’s insulted at the comparison.

2. Socialism as classical Marxism. The President does not advocate the overthrow of the bourgeoisie nor the nation-state a key political unit in global politics. ‘Nuff said.

3. Socialism as Marxist-Leninist authoritarian/totalitarian communism. No. Even Newt Gingrich agrees on this one.

4. Socialism as European social democracy. As explained previously, social democracy = free-market liberal capitalism + bigger welfare state + “mixed economy.” Let’s take the first one: does President Obama support free-market capitalism? Yes. And so do Republicans. Second, most European democracies spend somewhere between 20-30% of their GDP on welfare state services. The United States currently spends 17% on our welfare state. So that’s not all that different anyways. And there’s been no serious attempt to grow our welfare state spending by 10% of our GDP. Third, let’s look at “mixed economy.” Does the President advocate that the U.S. government take over the airplanes and highways? Is he advocating that the government seize the public airways, cell phone companies, or internet service providers? Not so far.

But what about health care reform? Wasn’t that “socialist” to the core? The health care reform bill essentially did three things: 1) restricted freedoms of private insurance companies, forcing them to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions, among other things, 2) increased regulation of these private insurance companies, forcing them to compete in health care exchanges in an effort to lower costs, and 3) mandated that individuals purchase health insurance. None of these things transferred ownership of the health insurance industry from private firms to the federal government, so no new “mixed economy,” and therefore no new “socialism.” Finally, let’s not forget that the U.S. has for some decades owned and operated health insurance programs. They’re called Medicare and Medicaid. Even the most ardent opponents of health care reform are hesitant to label Medicare/Medicaid as “socialist.”

Now how about the economic stimulus package and the auto/banking bailout packages? After all, the government basically used tax-payer money to save Wall Street and Detroit from bankruptcy. In other words, the government took ownership of some of these private firms. That indeed can be classified as “mixed economy,” certainly suggesting socialism. However, there was an important difference between the auto/banking bailouts and European social democracy. Unlike in Europe where this is designed to be a permanent fixture of the economy, the bailouts were temporary measures, designed to end as soon as possible. And the companies are well on their way to paying back these government loans (see here). Also, it’s important (and ironic) to remember that these “socialist” measures were first advocated and set into motion by Republican President Bush a few months before Obama’s inauguration. So if accusations of socialism are going to fly, let’s remember that President Bush would be the original socialist in this case.

The charge is often made, however, that increased government regulation is, by definition, socialism (or even communism). This is very common amongst some politicians as of late. (See herehere, and here.) This is inaccurate. PolitiFact even rated the “Obama is a socialist” charge a “pants-on-fire” mischaracterization. Increased government regulation of private firms and individuals, with higher taxation rates to pay for them, is more accurately described as modern political liberalism (see Heywood, pgs. 51-58). This is not socialism; it’s modern liberalism. Has President Obama increased government regulation of private firms and individuals? You betcha! That’s modern liberalism. That was FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. And that’s what President Obama has done with health care reform, with the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, and a host of other policies. It’s politically liberal, sure, but it’s not socialism. 

As a final argument, consider the following. Let’s array the various political ideologies and current economic systems in the world on a spectrum from extreme individualism to extreme communalism. It would look something like this:

The important thing to notice is where the red changes to green. Take special note that all “mainstream” ideologies in the world today (American conservatives, American liberals, and social democracy), are all on the individualist end of the spectrum. The great irony is that, in the grand scheme of things, there’s not much “socialist” about European social democracy anymore, and there hasn’t been for the better part of two decades now.

So is it accurate for Republicans to characterize Democrats (including President Obama) as socialists? No. They’re liberals. (And if you don’t like liberalism, and that’s okay!, then being a “liberal” is certainly a bad thing.) Are they “more in the socialist direction”? Sure, just as 4 is closer to 10 than 3 on a number line. But that hardly classifies them as “socialists.”

On an optimistic note, it appears that our GOP presumptive nominee understands the difference between being an American liberal and being a European-style socialist. In my opinion, he exaggerates a little when he says the president “takes inspiration” from European social democracy, but it’s sure a lot more accurate than several of his co-partisans who have spoken on the same topic:

Romney gets it more or less right. It’s entirely fair to call President Obama a liberal. It’s even fair to call him a “big spending” liberal (assuming you’re willing to call our previous president a “big spending conservative”). It’s inaccurate, though, and a little disingenuous to call him a socialist. Liberalism and socialism are not the same thing. 

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