A specter is stalking America—the specter of socialism.
The once-neglected S-word made a big comeback during the presidential campaign of 2008, and has now become a staple of American political discourse. While the right denounces Obama as a socialist, the cover of Newsweek magazine proclaims, "We are all socialists now." Is he? Are we? Depends on how you define "socialism," of course.
For Obama's more strident detractors, the label is practically synonymous with "communist." Back in October, Washington Times columnist Jeffery T. Kuhner predicted that Obama's victory would usher in "the U.S.S.A."—the United Socialist States of America. This catchy phrase is now showing up on bumper stickers, along with the self-explanatory moniker, "Comrade Obama."
This kind of rhetoric is not just the province of marginal firebrands. The New York Times reports that, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last weekend, Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and presidential contender, fulminated about the creation of "socialist republics" in America and asserted that "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff."
To those who remember the murderous horror that was the USSR, this flippant use of Communist and Soviet analogies should be deeply offensive, indeed obscene—the right-wing equivalent of the leftist habit of flinging Nazi metaphors at conservatives. Lenin, Stalin, and Obama are as much of a trio as Hitler, Mussolini, and Bush. Lenin and Stalin did not want to tax the rich a little more; they wanted to confiscate all their property and either kill them or send them to concentration camps (and to eliminate all political opposition and independent opinion).
Less wild-eyed critics acknowledge that the socialism they invoke is the "European-style" variety—in other words, not the system of our totalitarian Cold War enemy but that of our democratic allies. This is not to say that European-style socialism is something we should embrace, only that it's not a particularly terrifying bogeyman.
Is Obama a champion of European-style socialism—or, more precisely, a European-style welfare state? It is safe to say that, his protestations notwithstanding, he does not dislike bigger government. Conservative Obama supporters such as New York Times columnist David Brooks now complain that Obama is not the moderate they took him to be and that his view of government is far more aggressive than they expected. (What made them expect Obama to be anything but a proponent of activist government is unclear.)
The problem is that Republicans are not exactly on solid ground in denouncing Obama's proposed government expansion—not after colluding in the Bush Administration's spending spree. A headline in The Weekly Standard warns of "The Return of Big Government"; but big government never left, and certainly not under Bush. Obama may be seeking to reverse Ronald Reagan's legacy; but, as conservative economist Bruce Bartlett argued persuasively in his 2006 book, Impostor, that legacy was already betrayed by Bush. Many people will tell you we officially became "the U.S.S.A." with the bank bailout in October 2008.
The United States may have a substantially smaller welfare state than European nations, but neither have we had anything resembling "pure capitalism" for a very long time, and neither Reagan nor the Republican Congress were able to substantially reverse government growth. Social Security and Medicare are "socialism," and whatever their (substantial) economic flaws, they have proved politically untouchable; a major expansion of Medicare—prescription drug coverage for seniors—was enacted on Bush's watch. Even outside Medicare, the American health care system is no "free market" but an often unwieldy mix of market and regulation. Obama's proposed education initiatives expand, but hardly revolutionize, the federal role.
Conservative activist Matt Kibbe told The New York Times that "Americans are just genetically opposed to socialism." But if we're talking about the kind of "socialism" we are likely to get, this statement is (like it or not) as much in the realm of wishful thinking as the "Obamacons'" faith in Obama's commitment to limited government.
No sane person today would argue the merits of communism or Soviet-style socialism vs. democratic capitalism. But the size and role of government in democratic capitalist societies is very much a subject of legitimate debate. Most people favor some balance between security and flexibility, more equality and more individual opportunity. We proponents of small government should be able to argue for flexibility and opportunity without painting the other side as evil—and to criticize the Democrats' proposals without resorting to a Red Scare.
Of course, demonization cuts both ways. Fairly modest Republican attempts to curb the welfare state have been habitually painted by Democrats as plans to starve orphans and throw grandmas out on the street. Now, we have Republicans equating federal student aid with the gulag. Reasoned debate in politics? More wishful thinking.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.