By Billy Wharton
Sunday, March 15, 2009
It took a massive global financial crisis, a failed military adventure and a popular repudiation of the Republican Party to make my national television debut possible. After 15 years of socialist political organizing -- everything from licking envelopes and handing out leaflets to the more romantic task of speaking at street demonstrations -- I found myself in the midtown Manhattan studio of the Fox Business Network on a cold February evening. Who ever thought that being the editor of the Socialist magazine, circulation 3,000, would launch me on a cable news career?
The media whirlwind began in October with a call from a New York Times writer. He wanted a tour of the Socialist Party USA's national office. Although he was more interested in how much paper we used in our "socialist cubby hole" than in our politics, our media profile exploded. Next up, a pleasant interview by Swedish National Radio. Then Brian Moore, our 2008 presidential candidate, sparred with Stephen Colbert. Even the Wall Street Journal wanted a socialist to quote after the first bailout bill failed last fall. Traffic to our Web site multiplied, e-mail inquiries increased and meetings with potential recruits to the Socialist Party yielded more new members than ever before. Socialism -- an idea with a long history -- suddenly seemed to have a bright future in 21st-century America.
Whom did we have to thank for this moment in the spotlight? Oddly enough, Republican politicians such as Mike Huckabee and John McCain had become our most effective promoters. During his campaign, the ever-desperate McCain, his hard-charging running mate Sarah Palin and even a plumber named Joe lined up to call Barack Obama a "socialist." Last month, Huckabee even exclaimed that, "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but the Union of American Socialist Republics is being born."
We appreciated the newfound attention. But we also cringed as the debate took on the hysterical tone of a farcical McCarthyism. The question "Is Obama a socialist?" spread rapidly through a network of rightwing blogs, conservative television outlets and alarmist radio talk shows and quickly moved into the mainstream. "We Are All Socialists Now," declared a Newsweek cover last month. A New York Times reporter recently pinned Obama down with the question, "Are you a socialist, as some people have suggested?" The normally unflappable politician stumbled through a response so unconvincing that it required a follow-up call in which Obama claimed impeccable free market credentials.
All this speculation over whether our current president is a socialist led me into the sea of business suits, BlackBerrys and self-promoters in the studio at Fox Business News. I quickly realized that the antagonistic anchor David Asman had little interest in exploring socialist ideas on bank nationalization. For Asman, nationalization was merely a code word for socialism. Using logic borrowed from the 1964 thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," he portrayed Obama as a secret socialist, so far undercover that not even he understood that his policies were de facto socialist. I was merely a cudgel to be wielded against the president -- a physical embodiment of guilt by association.
The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies.
The first clear indication that Obama is not, in fact, a socialist, is the way his administration is avoiding structural changes to the financial system. Nationalization is simply not in the playbook of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and his team. They favor costly, temporary measures that can easily be dismantled should the economy stabilize. Socialists support nationalization and see it as a means of creating a banking system that acts like a highly regulated public utility. The banks would then cease to be sinkholes for public funds or financial versions of casinos and would become essential to reenergizing productive sectors of the economy.
The same holds true for health care. A national health insurance system as embodied in the single-payer health plan reintroduced in legislation this year by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), makes perfect sense to us. That bill would provide comprehensive coverage, offer a full range of choice of doctors and services and eliminate the primary cause of personal bankruptcy -- health-care bills. Obama's plan would do the opposite. By mandating that every person be insured, ObamaCare would give private health insurance companies license to systematically underinsure policyholders while cashing in on the moral currency of universal coverage. If Obama is a socialist, then on health care, he's doing a fairly good job of concealing it.
Issues of war and peace further weaken the commander in chief's socialist credentials. Obama announced that all U.S. combat brigades will be removed from Iraq by August 2010, but he still intends to leave as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq and wishes to expand the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A socialist foreign policy would call for the immediate removal of all troops. It would seek to follow the proposal made recently by an Afghan parliamentarian, which called for the United States to send 30,000 scholars or engineers instead of more fighting forces.
Yet the president remains "the world's best salesman of socialism," according to Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. DeMint encouraged supporters "to take to the streets to stop America's slide into socialism." Despite the fact that billions of dollars of public wealth are being transferred to private corporations, Huckabee still felt confident in proposing that "Lenin and Stalin would love" Obama's bank bailout plan.
Huckabee is clearly no socialist scholar, and I doubt that any of Obama's policies will someday appear in the annals of socialist history. The president has, however, been assigned the unenviable task of salvaging a capitalist system intent on devouring itself. The question is whether he can do so without addressing the deep inequalities that have become fundamental features of American society. So, President Obama, what I want to know is this: Can you lend legitimacy to a society in which 5 percent of the population controls 85 percent of the wealth? Can you sell a health-care reform package that will only end up enriching a private health insurance industry? Will you continue to favor military spending over infrastructure development and social services?
My guess is that the president will avoid these questions, further confirming that he is not a socialist except, perhaps, in the imaginations of an odd assortment of conservatives. Yet as the unemployment lines grow longer, the food pantries emptier and health care scarcer, socialism may be poised for a comeback in America. The doors of our "socialist cubby-hole" are open to anyone, including Obama. I encourage him to stop by for one of our monthly membership meetings. Be sure to arrive early to get a seat -- we're more popular than ever lately.