What is so strange about the idea that President Obama might be a socialist? True, it would be a big deal if the president of the United States considered himself an opponent of the capitalist system, especially when he’s consistently dismissed and denied the socialism charge. On the other hand, the idea that a committed socialist might play a prominent part in everyday American politics is not particularly surprising.
Have a look at today’s piece on umemployment by regular Washington Post columnist, Harold Meyerson. Meyerson is a prominent public figure, and a Vice-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Can you spot the socialism in his column? Meyerson criticizes big business, attacks across-the-board tax cuts, and advocates government-directed infrastructure investment as a solution to unemployment. Meyerson also supports initiatives along these lines by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.
Now some might say, what’s so socialist about all that? Meyerson hasn’t advocated a total government takeover of the economy. He’s even spoken out in favor of initiatives by conventional Democrats.
Yet we could just as easily look at things in reverse. Meyerson’s support for these Democratic initiatives could be taken as a sign that some socialists agree with conservatives. That is, sophisticated socialists and conservatives alike believe that America can be pushed into socialism by degrees. In fact, this is exactly how Meyerson’s group, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), understands its task. Actual existing American socialists (of the sophisticated “non-sectarian” variety typified by the DSA) don’t go around demanding full nationalization of the economy at a blow. On the contrary, they offer support to those Democratic Party initiatives most likely to bring about a socialist transformation in the long term. That is, the DSA thinks of itself as working within the Democratic Party, as a force to steer the party onto an incrementally socialist path.
As I’ll show in my forthcoming book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, this vision of socialism has long shaped President Obama. (I announced the book yesterday. You can see the cover and a description of the book’s argument here.) The point is that the notion that Barack Obama is a socialist is too often dismissed as a lurid and impossibly extreme scenario, as if being a socialist had to mean throwing Molotov cocktails and demanding instant revolution. On the contrary, Harold Meyerson’s regular columns in The Washington Post show us that, even if their long-term goals are radical, it’s entirely possible for sophisticated socialists to participate in the everyday back-and-forth of American politics. This is the way to think about Obama.