Sunday, October 3, 2010

Milton's Letter or: My Thoughts on the Morons Who Keep Calling Obama a Socialist

I'd like to apologize in advance for the length of this essay. While normally I agree that succinctness is ideal, I felt that - in light of the vociferousness with which right-wingers accuse Obama, the Democratic Party, and liberals in general of being socialistic - I had to be as thorough as possible in logically deconstructing this erroneous charge, even if doing so forced me to err on the side of verbosity.

A few weeks ago an editorial of mine was printed in The Rutgers Observer. In it, I pretended to have searched for the wisdom of Karl Marx and instead stumbled upon quotes from Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Naturally my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek through the piece. I have been bandying about those Jackson and Lincoln quotes for years, and intentionally allowed my readers to mistakenly believe that those words came from Karl Marx instead of two revered American presidents so as to illustrate, in an ironic way, how easily any liberal economic statement can be accused of having socialist connotations in today's political climate.

Of course, none of that prevented me from receiving a letter of protest from an indignant conservative Rutgers student, who for the sake of simplicity I will hereafter refer to as Milton (not his real name). In his e-mail, Milton claimed that (a) I had taken the Lincoln and Jackson quotes out of context and (b) I was wrong in asserting that Obama was not a Marxist.

Allow me to briefly address the issue of context. Let's start with the Jackson quote:

There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection and... shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.

That came from a statement penned by Old Hickory to explain his vetoing of a bill that would have renewed the Second National Bank (July 10, 1832). Jackson believed (correctly) that the bank, as run by the shamelessly plutocratic Nicholas Biddle, created fiscal policies that benefited big businesses and the wealthy at the expense of the common man. What's worse, he feared that the bank had so much power that it could manipulate our currency policy and thereby create artificial recessions in order to exert its political will (a concern that wound up being validated when Biddle engaged in precisely that tactic to coerce Congress and the public into opposing anti-bank measures). Since Jackson viewed such an institution as both undemocratic and a threat to the economic liberty that he believed was just as vital to freedom as the political kind, he resolved that the bank needed to go. This comment was in direct reference to that incident.

Now to the Lincoln citation:

... there is one point... to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government... Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and serves much the higher consideration.

That quote, culled from Lincoln's first State of the Union Address (December 3, 1861), was an attempt by the Great Emancipator to take the immediate issue of slavery - and specifically the arguments its defenders would use to rationalize that "peculiar institution" - and pivot from there to a discussion of the mentality that he believed was used to justify the inherently unjustifiable on all economic questions, even when such arguments were blatantly inconsistent with America's founding principles. As was Lincoln's wont, he approached the conflict of his own time from a macro perspective, one that placed the ideological struggles of the 1860s into the broader sweep of history. This led him to conclude that it was important not only to condemn slavery, but to the strike at the root assumptions which allowed people to defend it. Indeed, the State of the Union Address was not the first occasion in which Lincoln took the logical step from protesting slavery to espousing the larger cause of economic egalitarianism. In the previous year he delivered a speech with a much more succinct articulation of his conviction:

While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.

Of greater concern to me than Milton's claims about history, though, was his misunderstanding of the present. Throughout his letter he glibly conflated the economic policies of Barack Obama and of liberals with those of Karl Marx, from his insistence that the beliefs of Jackson and Lincoln were "in opposition to Marx and currently Obama" to his statement that for Jackson's statement "to be consistent with Marx and current liberal principles, the quote would have to be more like this - 'there is no necessary evils in government, so it must stop all highs and lows, rich and poor for an blessed state.'"

This kind of argument is not merely erroneous; it is downright harmful. There are three reasons for this:

1) It is factually incorrect. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Obama's policies, the simple truth is that they are not socialistic.

For further proof, we can refer to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of socialism:

noun \ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm\
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

It is important to note that this doesn't say that ANY government intervention in economic matters - be it in providing goods and services or in regulating major industries - constitutes socialism. If that was the case, we would have been a socialist state long before Barack Obama or even Franklin Roosevelt ever ascended to the White House. After all, the government does offer a "public option" in education via free schooling for children (an idea prominently advocated by Thomas Jefferson) and state colleges (supported, with an initial lack of success, by John Quincy Adams); regulates the food we eat and the medicines we take to make sure they are clean and safe (passed with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt); imposes an eight-hour workday (with the bill that set the precedent for this having been signed into law by Woodrow Wilson); prohibits the use of child labor (also passed into law the first time under Woodrow Wilson, although a Supreme Court decision overturning it required a second passage under Franklin Roosevelt); and bans the formation of corporate "trusts" that stifled competition (thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson).

There is much that the earlier list doesn't take into account. For example, there are public firefighters and police officers (both of which were initially only provided by private corporations until the obvious dangers and inefficiencies of that system became too flagrant and dangerous to ignore), the Securities and Exchange Commission (which was created after the Great Depression to prevent a repetition of the fiscal chicanery that contributed to the Stock Market crash, and which was effective until weakened by Ronald Reagan and his successors), and Medicare and Medicaid (pushed into being by President Lyndon Johnson and adamantly defended even by Republicans today, despite claims that it was "socialistic" back when LBJ and other liberals supported it). Expensive economic stimulus packages also have a long and distinguished history, from the massive national economic mobilization ordered by Franklin Roosevelt during World War Two (which caused unemployment to drop from 14% in 1940 to less than 2% in 1943) to the Interstate Highway Act pushed through by President Dwight Eisenhower, which contributed greatly to the economic prosperity of the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, if it wasn't for government regulation of the economy through civil rights legislation, it would still be legal for private businesses to refuse employment or refuse customer service on the basis of race, religion, and gender (indeed, many conservatives opposed legislation that wanted to prohibit this form of discrimination precisely because they felt the effect it would have on private enterprise was "socialistic").

In short, an elementary understanding of both the history of this country and the workings of today's government makes it very clear that spending money to end a recession, imposing regulations so as to guarantee fair play or prevent injustices, and advocating government involvement in providing goods and services are not socialistic. The reality is that "socialism" refers only to an extreme perspective in economic policy, one which argues that EVERYTHING in the economy should be controlled by the government. In the same vein, there are anarchists at the opposite extreme of that same spectrum who argue that NOTHING besides the military should be provided by the state. Fortunately, the vast majority of political figures and private citizens agree that the ideal lies somewhere between these two simplistic absolutes.

Of course, there are bound to be fierce disagreements as to the exact location of that happy medium, and not only is that acceptable, it's healthy and necessary. There is nothing at all illegitimate about conservatives who claim that too much government regulation can inhibit economic growth, that having the government provide certain goods and services can stifle creativity and hinder efficiency, that welfare programs to help the poor and assist the unemployed find work provides a disincentive for individual initiative, or that economic stimulus to end the recession is too expensive to be fiscally safe. While liberals may disagree with these arguments, there is nothing intellectually dishonest about their use by the right-wing in political debate, and if we are confident in the correctness of our position (which we should be), there is no reason to object when we are expected to rebut them.

That said, there IS something intellectually (to say nothing of morally) dishonest about claiming that advocates of financial and business regulation, labor rights, a public option in health care, unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare, minimum wage increases, programs to put people back to work, aggressive economic stimulus spending or other liberal economic policies are bringing us toward socialism. Just as it would be inaccurate to claim that someone who supports less government economic intervention is advocating economic anarchy (unless he or she is saying that the government should have absolutely no involvement in the economy), so too is it inaccurate to claim that someone who supports more government economic intervention is advocating socialism (unless he or she is saying that the government should have complete control over the economy). As such, since there is no evidence that Barack Obama, his advisors, or the vast majority of American liberals want a complete state takeover of the economy (kooky conspiracy theories to the contrary notwithstanding), the claim that any of them are socialistic is just factually wrong.

To quote the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

2) It breeds violence and persecution.

There is a long, tragic history in this country of people with legitimate progressive ideas being persecuted due to an erroneous conflation of their objectives with "socialism" or "communism." The most famous period during which this happened, of course, was in the early 1950s, when Senator Joe McCarthy had the nation tearing itself apart in a terrified frenzied at the prospect of potential Communist infiltration. The political atmosphere caused by his wild assertions resulted in mass firings, persecution, and blacklisting - based solely on suspicion and unsubstantiated accusation - which impacted individuals in every sector of American life, from academia and journalism to entertainment and the business world. The exact number of lives ruined during this period will never be known with certainty, although the Eisenhower administration later released the names of more than 2,400 government employees who had been terminated due to the government's anti-subversive program (only one of whom was ever definitely proved to have been engaged in Communist activity). It is also known that hundreds were blacklisted in Hollywood during the height of the Red Scare (with Ronald Reagan, then leader of the actors' union, among those who "named names"), while acts of violence against suspected communists were reported with increasing frequency.

Although the notoriety of McCarthy's actions has caused his name to be forever associated with the practice of trying to discredit opponents through false charges of socialism, McCarthyism itself actually predates its namesake. Rabid fear of radical leftists can be found as early as the First World War, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to arrest (using undercover informants and warrantless wiretaps) thousands of people suspected of being having Communist, Socialist, or anarchist sympathies. It could be found after McCarthy's downfall, such as during the presidency of John Kennedy, when Adlai Stevenson (former Democratic presidential nominee and then America's ambassador to the United Nations) was spat upon and hit on the head with a placard by a right-wing mob in Dallas that insisted he was a socialist. It was rampant during the Vietnam protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in which violence against anti-war students was often justified on the grounds that the activists were in cahoots with Communists. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't immune to red-baiting - during his crusade for civil rights, the violence inflicted against both him and his supporters was often justified on the basis of a lingering whispering campaign that King (and the civil rights movement in general) had ties with socialists (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even had King followed on the basis of those rumors).

In light of this history, it is hardly surprising that the same people who claim Obama and liberal Democrats are socialistic come disturbingly close to advocating violence or oppression. One can see it in Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada, who has claimed that "if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies," casually suggested that people need to "take out" her Democratic opponent, and stated that one of the goals of her movement is to force the press to "ask the questions we want to answer so that they report the news the way we want it to be reported." It can be found in the jeremiads of right-wing pundit Glenn Beck, who has joked about poisoning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and argued that Barack Obama's administration must be stopped because it is attempting a "second American Revolution." There was the time when Fox News contributor and former Washington Times bureau chief Liz Trotta mixed up the names of Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden and then made an off-hand wistful comment about wanting to "knock off" both of them "if we could", or the time when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin urged her supporters, "Don't retreat... Reload!" It makes itself manifest in the right-wing grassroots movement known as the Tea Party, whose protesters have held up signs saying "It is time to water the tree of liberty" (a reference to the Jefferson quote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants."), shouted bigoted slurs at pro-health care reform legislators, and even attacked Democrats who supported Obama's health care reform legislation (windows of Democratic offices in Wichita were shattered with bricks; the front door and window to the office of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was also destroyed; a similar incident occurred at the office of New York Representative Louise Slaughter; South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the highest ranking black member in that body, received a fax with an image of a noose; the brother of one Virginia Congressman found the propane gas line to his house severed and later discovered that a radical right-wing website had accidentally listed his home address instead of that of his sibling).

The incitement to violence isn't only direct. It is hard to avoid drawing a connection between the wild assertions that Obama is a socialist and similarly paranoid conspiracy theories - that he is a secret Muslim, that he was not born in this country and is thus an illegitimate president, that he wanted to create death panels in his health care reform legislation, that he is deliberately and systematically destroying American freedoms. Although those who defend the disseminators of these calumnies argue that their statements don't technically constitute threats, as former Republican speechwriter David Frum observed:

If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic—if he were those things, somebody should shoot him.

But he is not.

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising to hear that the Texas education board - which is revising its history textbooks and which, as one of the nation's largest purchasers of that product, has influence in how history is taught far beyond the borders of its own state - is rewriting Joe McCarthy's role in history so as to claim that he was vindicated. It even makes sense that Glenn Beck has advocated the restoration of the "loyalty oaths" that were commonplace during McCarthy's heyday. However, given that these are the same sources which repeatedly purport that Obama is a socialist, it becomes difficult to dismiss the timing of their discovery of the glories of McCarthyism as coincidental.

3) It stifles intelligent debate and limits our ability to solve important problems.

No policy should ever be implemented without first undergoing the litmus test of rigorous debate. At the same time, such debates are only beneficial when they involve a direct and thorough exploration of the FACTS involved in the given policies, rather than being mired in fictions and absurdities.

It is in this way that the conflation of liberalism with socialism oppresses the freedom of intellectual dialogue. When advocates of left-wing economic and social policies are accused of socialism, they usually wind up having to expend a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy attempting to demonstrate the falseness of the charges (often to no avail, since the sanctimoniousness of many red-baiters has made them impervious to rebuttal). While this would be acceptable if the charges themselves were potentially sound, the fact that they are patently ridiculous makes it unreasonable to expect liberals to have to waste their time addressing them. Naturally many liberals react to this obstacle by deciding to not even put in the effort. Even worse, many who are initially brave enough to weather the storm of vituperation become so overwhelmed by the hostility they face that they become apprehensive at the prospect of dealing with it again, eventually resulting in them either moderating their stands to be "less liberal" just so they can avoid the socialist charge or resolving to not articulate them at all - in effect, being intimidated into silence.

Forcing liberals to address erroneous charges of socialism is not only unfair, it is also detrimental to the quality of the debate. Once such a highly-charged distraction has been injected into the political dialogue about a given issue, it winds up consuming a great deal (if not a majority) of the attention regarding that subject. In the case of liberalism and the false charge of socialism, the disproportionate negative attention usually has the correlative effect of highlighting whatever points, valid and invalid, are being made by the conservatives who oppose the given left-wing idea. At the same time, it simultaneously causes the public consciousness to either minimize or entirely dismiss whatever arguments, valid or invalid, that liberals might have which support their position. A sound analogy might be made between the impact of those who cry "Socialist!" at liberal policies and the influence of hecklers on a stand-up comic's performance; even though other audience members may not like or even respect the heckler(s), as any comedian will tell you, the sheer vociferousness and shrillness of what they say almost invariably causes people to become unreasonably critical of the comedian's material, even if the so-called flaws being identified by the heckler are bogus and the material itself has genuine merit. Similarly, cries of "socialism" don't just take time away from the relevant portions of a given debate; they force people to pay attention to silly straw men instead of the real issues at stake. By muddling the clarity of the public's understanding, false cries of socialism wind up dumbing down the debate.

None of this, though, constitutes the worst consequence of today's McCarthyism. No, the worst part is a ramification so obvious that the failure to more widely recognize it is astonishing - i.e., when liberals are correct in what they want to do, they often are rendered unable to implement it, to the detriment not just of their personal cause, but of the American people.

Take our current recession. History has repeatedly shown that the way to bring about an end to economic recessions is through policies that lower unemployment, increase wages while avoiding rapid inflation or deflation so as to maximize purchasing power, and allow the law of supply-and-demand in our free market to work on a macroeconomic level - that is, watch as increased spending fuels job creation, which in turn will fuel more spending, which will in turn fuel more job creation, and so on.

Conservatives have no meaningful proposals as to how we can make this happen in America today. Although some say that cutting taxes on the wealthy will stimulate the economy, the data shows that such measures usually only cause the wealthy to hoard their extra cash or spend it on luxury items; likewise, arguments that cutting taxes on big businesses will cause them to create jobs have proven inaccurate, since the owners of said businesses tend to pocket the additional money for personal profit instead of using it to expand their enterprises or engage in other job-creating endeavors. Similarly, claiming that tax cuts on the middle or working classes will bring about recovery is erroneous (even though liberals usually join conservatives in supporting such measures) since the unemployed obviously can't benefit from tax cuts while the non-wealthy have an understandable instinct to save when they perceive that the economy is flailing.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the way to improve the economy is to (1) spend as much money as needed in order to create the jobs necessary to put unemployed Americans back to work, even if doing so requires cutting superfluous military spending or raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses so as to avoid increasing the budget deficit and/or raising taxes on the middle and working classes, and (2) strengthen labor laws and raise the minimum wage so as to guarantee that people who receive jobs will earn enough money to be able to afford their reasonable wants and needs. This latter goal serves not only an obvious humanitarian objective but also a practical one - since ideally economic stimulus should not be permanent, the easiest way to make sure that it serves as a temporary life support system instead of a lasting crutch is to guarantee that consumers earn enough money at their jobs so that the cash they infuse into the marketplace can create a self-sustaining cycle of prosperity independent of government activity.

The essence of the liberal economic mentality was best summarized by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech during his first presidential campaign in 1932:

The task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights... Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him.

In the past, the programs based on this mantra have worked spectacularly well, as evidenced by the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (especially the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the program of national economic mobilization during World War Two) and the host of milder policies implemented by his three Democratic successors (Harry Truman's Fair Deal, John Kennedy's New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and War on Poverty, all of which addressed both the immediate issues of employment and wages and related socio-economic issues including housing, medical care, security in old age, and education). As such, it stood to reason that Barack Obama should attempt some variation of those policies in the fight against our current recession - and initially he agreed.

But then McCarthyism reared its ugly head. Before Obama had even finished hammering out the details of his stimulus proposal, protests cropped up all over America decrying his recovery plan as "socialistic." In response to this, the president decided to propose a plan that liberal economists (Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz) instantly realized was only one-fourth as large as what would be needed to increase employment and create a real recovery (even though its price tag was $787 billion, $288 billion of it was wasted on tax cuts, with less than $500 billion going to a stimulus that, in order to be effective, would need $2 trillion). Obama's clear goal, as indicated by both his approach with Congress and his rhetoric, was to prove his right-wing critics wrong in their charges that he was a socialist, even if doing so required a package that only prevented the recession from worsening instead of causing it to actually improve.

The consequence of this is well-known: The recession hasn't ended, Obama's approval ratings are at an all-time low, and his right-wing critics still accuse him of being a socialist, as they would have inevitably done regardless of whether he'd passed a bill four times larger - as was needed - or one that was even smaller. Despite his efforts to reason with the right-wing, the hypocrisy of many of their charges still eludes them. Their complaint about the increase in our budget deficit, for example, ignores the fact that of the $200 billion budget deficit increase caused by the bill in 2009, half of that came from the tax cuts demanded from conservatives such as themselves, and even had the bill been large enough to end the recession ($2 trillion), this only would have increased the deficit by $400 billion, making it still cheaper than either George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy or his war in Iraq (and also meaning that it could be paid for without increasing the deficit by ending either one of those). Likewise, their claim of being overtaxed ignores the reality that taxes under President Obama have only increased for those who makes $250,000 a year or more.

Far worse than Obama's political woes, though, is the human toll of his failure to adequately act after the charge of "socialist" was lobbed against him. Because claims of socialism caused Obama to water down his bill to a quarter efficiency, unemployment remains sky high, income levels are stagnating at best, and the suffering caused by this downturn has no end in sight. Although much of the blame rests with Obama for capitulating to today's McCarthyites instead of fighting them, the reality is that the decision to capitulate never would have been made had he not first faced ideological bullies who forced him to choose between fighting and appeasement. Now that Obama has learned his lesson and is trying to pass the stimulus needed (albeit piecemeal), it is too late; the damage to his political brand is so serious that he lacks the resources to push through the bold program that was necessary from the beginning, and barring a decisive re-election in 2012, he will not get that back. A similar story can be told with other key issues, particularly health care reform, where claims of socialism caused Obama to take a plan that had never been socialistic in the first place (at its most liberal it merely called for a "public option," or a government-run health care provider to exist as an alternative to, rather than replacement for, private insurers) and water it down so that, while still effective, it wound up leaving millions uninsured needlessly.

This is the greatest harm of all caused by McCarthyist tactics, both as used in the past and as applied against Obama today. When they force liberals to retreat on issues where they're wrong, the only victims are the liberals themselves who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or silenced. When, however, they force a left-wing retreat on issues where the progressives are right - with the economic stimulus package and health care reform being only the most recent examples - everyone in America suffers. For that to happen in any situation is a senseless tragedy, but for it to occur as the result of an argument that has more of gravy than of grave to it is something unforgivable.

It is the triumph of stentorian stupidity over the needs of humanity.

Of course, I admit that the contents of some of these paragraphs may meet with disapproval from conservatives. I welcome their dissent. I encourage an uninhibited discussion on all of these issues. In a free society, it is necessary that intelligent men and women vigorously disagree on matters of great importance.

But no society can be free when one point of view is so mischaracterized that its adherents are denied a reasonable opportunity to make their case to the public. No nation can advance when intelligent, well though-out solutions to major problems aren't given a fair hearing because they are shouted down by irrational hatreds. In short, if conservatives wish to debate me, disagree with President Obama, or criticize any other liberal in any way, they have the right to do so - but ONLY if they stick to the realm of facts. As one of America's first conservative thinkers put it best:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
- John Adams

PS: My original article has since been published online:

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