Khaki Socialism

Will advocates of big government win the rhetorical war?


A few years back, I coined the term khaki socialism to refer to the tactic of promoting bigger government either by invoking military necessity or by dressing domestic initiatives in the language of war. Since 9/11, of course, the term has gained new and greater significance.

Literally before New York could clear the rubble of the World Trade Center, lawmakers were trying to spend more on anti-terrorism measures than even the administration wanted, prompting President Bush to threaten a veto. The Republican chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said that his $71 billion railroad bill was vital because the terrorist hijackings "demonstrated even more the need for transportation alternatives."

We've been down this rhetorical road many times before. World War II and the Cold War spawned far-flung constituencies that sustained useless or obsolete military bases and weapon systems. Time and again, the word defense was the lubricant that helped unlock the Treasury doors. Hence, the National Defense Education Act and the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

History suggests other paths the khaki socialism will take in the months and years ahead. Noting that Soviet propagandists liked to talk about America's slums, liberals in the 1960s said that solving domestic social problems would help win our psychological war with communism. The first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 was about domestic policy, but JFK began by saying that such issues "involve directly our struggle with Mr. Khrushchev for survival."

Five years later, Lyndon Baines Johnson said: "All you have to do is look at the morning paper this morning to see the rockets that were paraded down the avenues in the Soviet Union yesterday or the day before, and realize that until we banish ignorance, until we drive disease from our midst, until we win the war on poverty, we cannot expect to continue to be the leaders not only of a great people but the leaders of all civilization." In the late 1960s, even peaceniks got into khaki socialism by expanding the definition of "national security" far beyond anything that could plausibly become a GI Joe accessory.

Their sons and daughters are at it again. The National Association of Social Workers says on its Web site, "The social work profession can contribute to a redefinition of national security that includes healthy children, the prevention of poverty, an adequate education for all residents, and a productive economy." Writing in USA Today, Ted Halstead and Michael Lind warn that current bills "ignore one of the weakest links in our homeland defense: the armies of Americans without health insurance."

That metaphor points to another variant of khaki socialism, one that goes something like this: If big government can win World War II, the Cold War, and the Gulf War, then surely it can win the war against poverty, illiteracy, or disease.

When the United States does manage to crush Al Qaeda and its allies, the War on Terror will become part of this refrain. The argument will be that we can solve domestic problems if only we apply national resources as massively and single-mindedly as we did in the military struggle. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney recently told the Los Angeles Times: "You know, the president's getting good marks for the war against the terrorists, but he is neglecting the domestic war." Of course, the federal government did declare wars on poverty and drugs, with deeply disappointing results. In both cases, the domestic D-Days turned into stateside Vietnams.

Although military metaphors do help us understand many aspects of politics, they are not a literal guide to public policy. Put a little differently: If we've learned one thing in the past 40 years, it's that government cannot always help people by daisy bombing them with tax money.

It would be a shame if we followed military victory with khaki-wrapped pork-barrel spending–and elaborate, if misguided, metaphorical wars.