Saturday, July 25, 2009

Barack Obama, Social Democrat?

"I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn’t on my watch. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement – the prescription drug plan without a source of funding. And so I think it’s important just to note when you start hearing folks throw these words around that we’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can’t say the same."~Barack Obama

Consider this: If Brian Coulter in his Longview News Journal July 25 column was correct in insistencing that President Barack H. Obama is a socialist, then in November 2008, the American people elevated a socialist to the highest office in the land. If you find such an odd scenario to be highly unlikely, I'm with you. If you believe, as does Coulter and others on the increasingly hysterical right, that Obama achieved the presidency by hiding his "socialism" under a cloak of deception and guile, then you come perilously close to being relegated to the conspiracy obsessed fringe that has variously labeled the President a "Stealth Muslim," a "Manchurian Candidate," or an "alien born," illegitimate usurper ensconced in the Oval Office. Let us know how that works out for you.

The socialist tag is not new, in fact its "sell by" date has long since passed. That train has left the station. Yet Coulter et al. cling to the fallacy with a desperation that defies all evidence to the contrary. The smear emerged with a vengeance during the 2008 campaign, along with other rather transparent attempts at "Swift-Boating" then candidate Obama. Their spectacular failure, aided in no small part by the ineptitude and down right silliness of the McCain/Palin ticket, was given resounding emphasis in the margin of the President's victory.

Also dragged out to make the rounds in Coulter's column are the fusty old campaign ghosts of William Ayers (another socialist out of the woodwork?) and ACORN. Again, if these failed PR stunts didn't seriously damage Obama back then, what could motivate their use now? Apparently it's the same type of fixation that drives those coteries of conspiracy which disbelieve that we landed men on the moon, that the government has been completely forthcoming about Area 51, or that Elvis has indeed "left the building."

It bears asking, how could John McCain, a respected long time Senator and war hero, lose the presidency (and our country) to a socialist? The answer is, he didn't. He lost to an American Democrat, no more socialist than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who enacted one of the most lasting, effective governmental programs in our history; Social Security. At the time of his administration, Roosevelt also endured specious accusations of fomenting a socialist dismantling of capitalism and the nation. Yet amazingly, here we are decades later, functioning as a capitalist society. To the extent we are locked, as Coulter writes, in an abysmal cycle of governmental growth, unemployment, and precipitously increasing debt, is it really feasible that in less than one year, Obama has caused all the chaos? Not very likely.

The non-existent governance of the previous administration still bears the lion's share of responsibility for our present plight. Recall that the bailout of the financial institutions was an idea that sprang Athena-like from the head of George W. Bush. And by the way, if Obama is so anti-capitalist, why did he endorse a plan spawned by the unquestionably capitalist Bush administration? Bush was so fixated on war and terrorism that he neglected to govern. The mess Obama inherited has been the driving force behind the more controversial (and necessary) of his policies, not a blind commitment to socialist ideology as Coulter persistently and wrongly claims.

I take exception to one comment from Coulter's column which really gets us to the crux of the matter: "That Obama could cherry pick attractive collectivist elements of the socialist platform and enact them never occurs to Anderson..." Wrong. In fact, that idea is not difficult to attribute to Obama at all. If an idea is attractive to Obama, I suspect it is so because he believes that it will ultimately help, not hurt the country. And the President has proven his openness to all solutions, and shown a remarkable penchant for synthesizing seemingly disparate ideas into fresh approaches. Like Bush, Coulter seems averse to "nuance." His deficiency in knowledge about the diversity of thought on the left is revealing, as is his projection onto the left of the same monolithic lockstep that characterizes the right.

If you must have a label for Obama's economic philosophy, it could more precisely be called, Social Democracy, which is a specific anti-socialist movement born out of the left's response to the ascendancy of Capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. In a Summer 2009 essay in DISSENT magazine, Columbia University associate Professor, Sheri Berman provides the proper placement of Obama's economic philosophy in historical terms. She writes that the success and resilience of Capitalism long after its emergence caused the left to split into three distinct camps. The first (and the first to fall in the face of Capitalism's success) was Leninism, which advocated the use of force to advance its economic/social model. Other leftists, uncomfortable with such violence, chose to keep to a democratic path.

It was a further schism in this second faction that would lead to the economic model that comes closest to Obama's ideas: Social Democracy. Unlike the other two factions of the left, represented by classic Marxism/Leninism and Democratic Socialists, the Social Democratic division believed in a compromise between the best of Capitalism and Socialism, and sought to reform the former rather than eagerly awaiting or even hastening its demise. The "Unheralded" battle between these factions of the left, Berman writes, is the great untold political story of the 20th Century.

Social Democracy, far from attempting to dismantle Capitalism, actually seeks both to strengthen and reform it. This has been in Berman's words, a process of "encouraging [economic] growth while at the same time protecting citizens from capitalism's negative consequences." In fact, the model has proved to be successful in Denmark and Sweden, and Berman believes American leftists should strive to emulate it.

Of course Coulter will concede none of this because it wouldn't advance and preserve his prejudices to do so. His all encompassing obsession seems to be the libeling and maligning of the executive. Meanwhile President Obama, and I might add we as Americans, have serious problems to face down and conquer. We must leave naysayers like Coulter to do what they do best, which is to complain rather than offer realistic solutions.


Read Coulter's column in its entirety at:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Of Handbooks and Humanity

It's official, conservative's now have a handbook. As a liberal, purchasing "The Conservative's Handbook," by Phil Valentine wasn't too much of a stretch. I figured what better way to get a handle on where these folks were really coming from. While I haven't read all of Valentine's book (and to be honest, I may never read it all), The portions I have read have proved eye-opening. As a foot soldier in the "Kulturkampf" that exists between liberal's and conservatives in America, I think I may purchase many similar books in the future. What better way to ferret out the many weaknesses inherent in the conservative program, and to find common ground, assuming it still exists between the camps.

Conservative's who wish to become equally educated about the ideology of the left may have their work cut out for them. Even I struggle to recall ever seeing a compendium of liberal thought that exists under the title say, of "The Liberal's Handbook." I haven't found one yet, but I do own a copy of Eric Alterman's 2008 book, "Why We're Liberals," which bills itself as a political handbook for a "Post-Bush America."

Then there is Ted Rall's entertaining "Wake Up...You're Liberal!" which purports to show independents and even many Republicans just how unwittingly liberal they actually are. Neat trick, I'd say.

There are more such tomes weighing down my shelves here at the homestead, but I'll only mention one in passing since it probably hasn't seen a lot of publicity due most likely to it's admittedly wonkish presentation and the general anti-intellectualism that prevails in our time. The book is "The Second Bill Of Rights," by Cass R. Sunstein and it offers a compelling argument in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's rarely discussed, though brilliant State of the Union address of January 1944.

I suppose my point here is that while conservatives have had the commendable foresight to compile their ideological touchstones in an accessible volume and in clear, simple terms, liberals have to search far and wide to piece together the core beliefs that drive their movement. George Lakoff has done much to crystallize these ideas through such books as "Don't Think of an Elephant," "Moral Politics," and "The Political Brain," but more needs to be done.

While we await our one volume compilation of all things liberal, maybe we should be about the business of identifying and codifying them for ourselves. Conviction however, need never wait upon finding the right book. Our liberal values are inscribed in our hearts and minds already. Just look to the basic morality, fairness and compassion that characterizes humanity at its best. Surely our values as liberals are enshrined there at least in rudimentary form. Not insignificant is the fact that the word humane has as its root "human."