Oversimplifications: “Obama is a Socialist”

by Benjamin Studebaker

How many times have we heard this one? “Obama is a socialist”, they say, “he’s just like [insert Communist boogie man here]”. There’s an obvious thing being missed by the right when they call Obama a socialist, and that’s that there are endless variations on socialism. So that brings us to our question for today–if Obama is a socialist, what kind of socialist would he be, and who should the right be comparing him to?

We’ll start with a cursory look through the broad tent that is socialism to see some of its variants. The one thing that all socialist branches have in common is the notion that, to some degree or to some level, the state should be involved in the economy. At the minimum, this might be just at a regulatory level, at the maximum, it might be full nationalisation of the means of production. Even right wingers who want the government to protect against monopolies by reviewing mergers or enforce minimum health and safety regulations are, to the tiniest degree, socialist. So, with that in mind, let’s have a look at some of the variants:

  • National Socialism: otherwise known as fascism, national socialism is actually minimally socialist–the corporations all remain privatised, they just get a lot of their contracts from the government, and usually those contracts involve building weapons
  • Stalinism: all property is nationalised with the government setting plans and production targets that it will meet regardless of the casualties or consequences involved, even if it means famine or death for thousands of people
  • Old Model Democratic Socialism: the Western European governments of the post-war era (1945-70s and 80s) had key industries nationalised, strong union protections, extensive welfare states, single payer health systems, and public-private partnerships
  • New Model Democratic Socialism: modern Western European governments (70s and 80s to present) have privatised most of their holdings, eroded union protections, but preserved single payer health systems along with the welfare state and intensified public-private partnerships
  • Scandinavian Model: Sweden/Denmark/Norway run the new model DS with more progressive and higher taxes allowing for higher levels of government spending and investment
  • Trotskeyism: beaten out by Stalinism, this version wanted mass direct democracy combined with universal state ownership
  • Anarcho-Marxism: throw the state out entirely and establish a universal global commune where everything belongs to everyone

To provide some relative perspective, here’s where I’d place these conceptions on a political compass (based off the design devised here), in which the left/right axis is economic policy left/right and the up/down axis is tendency toward authoritarianism at the top and anarchism at the bottom:

We know that Obama is to the right of New Model Democratic Socialism because he never proposed a single payer health care system, let alone a system with a public option. There simply isn’t a large enough state presence in those reforms for it to be similar to the governing policies of modern Britain or France. At the same time, while Britain and France have both passed financial reforms to address some of (but by no means all of) the causes of the financial crisis, the Obama administration has been more or less silent on the subject. New Model Democratic Socialist leaders have also, during the crisis, advocated larger, more comprehensive, and more global stimulus (see Gordon Brown and Francois Hollande).

At the same time, we know that Obama is to the left of the Romney campaign. I can conceive of a right-wing campaign that is more extreme than the present campaign, so I place the Romney campaign a couple ticks over from Ron Paul territory on the left right axis. Both Obama and Romney seem to favour similar levels of authoritarianism in most areas of policy (think the Afghan surge, the Libya intervention, drone attacks), aside from the Obama campaign’s tepid support for (though lack of policy advocacy on) abortion rights, LGBT rights, and other social issues.

So if Obama is a socialist, he’s closest to New Model Democratic Socialism, but even then he is not very close, because he has not advocated the kind of welfare state or health care system that a left wing British, French, or German politician would support. Meanwhile, on all the “Obama is a Socialist” t-shirts, the design isn’t a picture of Obama next to Tony Blair, Francois Hollande, and Ed Miliband, it’s typically something more like this:

Obama’s position on the left-right scale is more or less equivalent to that of David Cameron, the right-wing British Prime Minister. Were Cameron compared to the these guys (from left: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Obama), the response in the UK would doubtless be complete bewilderment, as Cameron is considered a committed Tory with a passion for spending cuts and painful austerity. Despite this, Cameron supports single payer health care, and in some respects is consequently further left than Obama. So what sort of view of politics must people on the right have in order to hold this distorted view? I propose that it is a case of localised thinking. Lacking a broader global scope for comparing political theories, poorly informed people on the right assume that the American political debate comprises the whole scale of possible political thinking, that the American far left is politically equivalent to far left theory–in other words, that someone with the left/right balance of David Cameron is more or less Karl Marx. What they see in front of them is assumed to be all there is. Here’s what I imagine the political compass looks like to one of these people:

For these guys, all socialism is the same thing, because their understanding of political theory is limited to what they have personally experienced. They zoom in on the compass until it looks as if all leftism is just a monolith, where differences can no longer be discerned because the variants have been taken out of perspective. At the same time, the globally extreme position of the Romney campaign looks relatively benign and reasonable. The important thing to take from all of this is that the “Obama is a socialist” crowd is guilty of insular, limited thinking. There is a whole world of political theory out there, some of it good, most of it bad, but none of it deserving to all be lumped in with everything else and excluded from the conversation. That’s closed mindedness, and it’s bad for any free society.