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Jonah Goldberg, Obama, And Socialism

Jonah Goldberg has a long essay in Commentary attempting to defend the notion that President Obama is a socialist. The argument suffers from numerous flaws. One of them is that it cites three liberal writers -- John Judis, Harold Meyerson, and Matthew Yglesias -- discussing socialism, and concludes, "Surely if fans of President Obama’s program feel free to call it socialist, critics may be permitted to do likewise." Except that none of those writers was actually calling Obama's program socialist. Judis wrote a 2009 essay that touched on "partially" socialist ideas abroad, and touched on Obama's program as potentially undertaking quasi-socialistic elements, without calling it socialist. Meyerson mused about the fact that the economic crisis had driven more young people to label themselves socialist. Yglesias was both using the term "socialism" ironically and, more importantly, describing potential policy steps that Obama did not take. The citation of these writers as calling Obama's program socialist, especially the latter two, is so inaccurate as to necessitate a correction.

As David Frum pointed out in a subsequent debate with him, concluding that Obama is a socialist because liberals called him a socialist (which, again, they hadn't) is a debating tactic, not a real analysis. And the really major problem with Goldberg's analysis is that it makes no attempt to differentiate socialism from economic liberalism. Goldberg's definition of socialism is both vague and wildly expansive. He explicitly writes that it need not involve government control of the means of production. Goldberg defines socialism as "an assertive statism applied in the larger cause of 'equality,' usually through redistributive economic policies that involve a bias toward taking an intrusive and domineering role in the workings of the private sector." Socialism-- or social-ism, to use his faux-precise term -- is "oriented toward government control but is not monomaniacally committed to it as the be-all and end-all."

Toward the end of the piece, Goldberg casts Obama's socialism as a contrast to the ideology of Ronald Reagan:

Whereas Ronald Reagan saw the answers to our problems in the private sphere (“in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”), Obama seeks to expand confidence in, and reliance on, government wherever and whenever he can, albeit within the confines of a generally Center-Right nation and the “unfortunate” demands of democracy. [Goldberg hilariously equates the frustration of some Obama supporters with the massive expansion of the filibuster as a rejection of "democracy.']

In other words, socialism means an agenda that promotes some greater measure of equality, however modest, increases regulation, and expands the size of government by any significant measure. This would describe every Democratic president in the post-Hoover era, and several Republican ones as well. (Indeed, Goldberg's thumbnail description of George W. Bush in this same essay -- "the size and scope of government massively expanded under Bush’s watch while corporate tax rates remained high and Wall Street was more, not less, regulated" -- would seem to qualify him as yet another socialist as well.) The elements of Obama's agenda that Goldberg cites as most socialist -- health care reform,  the temporary nationalization of an industry, and "wage controls" (his exaggerated description of the weak limits on the pay of a few bailed-out bankers) -- were all pursued by previous post-war presidents, usually in a more big-government fashion.

Now, Goldberg does seem to believe that the entire structure of American government starting with FDR has been socialist, and any president who does not actively seek to roll it back is therefore a socialist too. In other words, he believes that what most people call "liberalism" or "progressivism," or even in some cases less pure versions of "conservatism," is usefully described as "socialism." I think that's a pretty silly definition that hampers precision -- it defines out of existence terms that, among other virtues, are actually embraced by the advocates of the ideology in question to describe their beliefs. And it collapses important distinctions -- if one day there's a real movement in America to impose government control of the means of production and/or total income equality, Goldberg will have no words to describe it.

But this is not some abstract academic exercise. For almost all Republicans, the point of labeling Obama socialist is not to signal that he's continuing the philosophical tradition of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Clinton. The point is to signal the opposite: that Obama embodies a philosophy radically out of character with American history. Republicans have labeled Obama's agenda as "socialism" because the term is widely conflated with Marxism, even though Goldberg concedes they are different things, and because "liberalism" is no longer a sufficiently scary term. Republicans endlessly called Bill Clinton a liberal, Al Gore a liberal -- the term has lost some of its punch. So Obama must be something categorically different and vastly more frightening.

Goldberg is defending the tactic by arguing, in essence, that liberalism is a form of socialism, and Obama is a liberal, therefore he can be accurately called a socialist. But his esoteric exercise, intentionally or not, serves little function other than to dress up a smear in respectable intellectual attire.