Thomas Frank: Obama and the Pink Scare

From beyond Rupert’s Wall Street Journal paywall (thanks, Google!):

There was lots of bad news for Democrats in a poll released last week by Democracy Corps, the well-known liberal consultancy, but the factoid that captured my attention was an item buried deep in the report. After recording likely voters’ views on whether President Barack Obama could be described as “too liberal” or “a big spender,” the pollsters found that fully 55% of them believed the term “socialist” fit the president well.

An immediate objection: No, it doesn’t. If the president were actually a socialist in the Western European sense, he would certainly have pushed for single-payer health care, he would surely have gotten tough with the banks during the financial crisis, and he would undoubtedly have launched a massive program of public works instead of last year’s halfhearted stimulus package.

Instead he consistently chooses solutions that a more innocent age called “market-oriented,” always while seeking to placate this industry or that. Yesterday he even appointed a former hedge fund manager to run his Office of Management and Budget.

Another thing to consider: The pollsters didn’t define the word “socialist.” Many Americans, in my experience, think it means someone who supports basic welfare-state provisions like unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security—a standard by which socialism is immensely popular and most politicians fit the description.

Even so, the news must please the right. For almost two years now, their favorite entertainers and wise men have been trying to make “socialism” the political curse-word of the day, the mark of the ideological alien, and now here comes confirmation that their improbable crusade has partially succeeded. The John Birch Society could never persuade the public that President Eisenhower was really a communist agent, but this time the trick has worked—and even without the Soviets around to give the thing a modicum of plausibility.

The pink scare depends on a deception so simple it’s hard to believe it works. First, the term is applied to the target by use of the sweeping, everyone’s-a-socialist definition given above. Then, while the word remains the same, the definition is shifted to something else: the way of the gulag, the Soviet-style prison-state towards which we are supposedly headed thanks to our old-age pensions and progressive income tax.

The word means whatever conservatives want it to mean; the word is a political death sentence. The word “socialism” is supposed to do the work of political persuasion all by itself.

So: We’ve just come through the grandest series of market failures that most of us will ever experience. The things that Americans spent the last few decades celebrating were the very things that did us in. Incentives incented CEOs to drive their companies into the ground. Financial innovations innovated us right into recession. Creative accounting gave us Enron.

Our market-minded rulers, meanwhile, spent years stuffing the government with industry-friendly hacks. Their deregulatory efforts, once thought to be the mandate of historical inevitability itself, ensured that the financial chicanery would go uncovered. And the time-honored model of pro-business governance—in which “the best public servant is the worst one”—is still paying disaster-dividends today.

But what we are anxious to debate, it now seems, are the pros and cons of the Soviet system. And whether a given policy, or a person, and sometimes even a sport—is “socialist” or “capitalist.”

I’m not worried that we will be “polarized” by this debate; I’m worried that it has nothing to do with reality.

After all, we talk about the subject only in the most abstract terms. More than half of us believe the president is a socialist, but we have few self-identified social-democrats on our op-ed pages or Sunday talk shows to show us what one actually looks like.

No pundits go to the northern plains to study the state-run Bank of North Dakota and find out how it managed to weather the financial crisis without incident. No one wonders how the nation’s municipally owned utilities happened to avoid the pitfalls of electricity deregulation. Or how the citizens of those plains and those municipalities remain free after having paved their roads to serfdom so well.

Instead we turn to books like South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s 2009 best seller, “Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide Into Socialism,” a long meditation on the horror of socialism that never really settles on a definition of what socialism is. Or Newsweek’s famous 2009 cover story, “We Are All Socialists Now,” in which “socialism” is jokingly taken to be a synonym for “French.”

But what was it called when your 401(k) fell by 75%? When you lost your job? When they poisoned the ocean and shuttered your town and moved the factory offshore? Merely the blessings of “freedom”—something real patriots don’t question.

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