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Obama, a European Socialist? I Wish!

Last fall, Mitt Romney alleged that Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe, and from the socialist Democrats in Europe.” I wish that were true, although socialism has American roots as well. But in point of fact, Romney could summon no evidence at all for his claim. In the richer European countries, citizens have the benefit of a cradle-to-grave welfare system—or did, until the current wave of austerity rolled in. Meanwhile, our president’s main achievement is a health care bill closely modeled on the one designed by his GOP challenger, Romney himself.

It doesn’t seem to bother Republicans that their blithe condemnation of the President as a socialist is so contrary to the facts. But what bothers me is the failure of the Democratic Party to rise to the level of the GOP’s insults. Indeed, one of the more depressing aspects of American politics today is how Democrats have been bullied into a defensive posture in the battle of ideas. In his last State of the Union address, Obama declared that “Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” Compare that apologetic stance to the election platform of Francois Hollande, the Socialist likely to be elected president of France on May 6, which declares, “equality is at the heart of our ideals. … The permanent redistribution of resources and wealth is necessary to make equal rights a reality … to reduce the disparities of condition and fight poverty.”

Compared to its European counterparts, the Democratic Party is defensive to a fault. And that’s a problem to which I’d like to offer a modest solution: Americans on the left should actually start advocating the basic principles of socialism.

I am not, of course, referring to the cruel, inefficient, undemocratic system that reigned in the old USSR and survives, barely, in present-day Cuba. The only socialist ideals worth talking about are scrupulously democratic and civil libertarian. And they remain a powerful option in nations across most of Europe, as well in Japan, Latin America, and South Africa.

In the United States, such views have not always been regarded as either diabolic or alien. A century ago, the Socialist Party of America elected hundreds of candidates to local office in municipalities from Antlers, Oklahoma, to New York City and attracted such prominent thinkers as John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, and Thorstein Veblen. Socialist attacks on the injustice of unregulated capitalism helped inspire the creation of such agencies as the FDA, the SEC, and the National Labor Relations Board. They helped make Americans receptive to Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a future in which economic security or “Freedom from Want” would achieve a status as lofty as the First Amendment.

In 1966, the civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin and the economist Leon Keyserling drew up a sweeping blueprint for a new, social-democratic order. Their “Freedom Budget” would have guaranteed to every citizen a job, an annual income, health insurance, good schools, and decent housing—all paid for by a progressive income taxes that had been stripped of loopholes for the rich. It was warmly endorsed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and by every major black organization, as well as many unions. But the escalating war in Vietnam ruptured the coalition which supported it, and the conservative upsurge soon made the whole idea of redistributing wealth an electoral pariah.

Today, in the absence of a radically egalitarian alternative, Obama and his fellow liberal centrists have become, by default, the only left most Americans can identify. Last fall, the Occupy protestors made a shrewd attempt to broaden the ideological spectrum, but the movement’s surge has halted, at least for the moment, together with its floodlit encampments. So there is no incentive for the president or most other Democrats to aggressively question the free-market messianism that unites every Republican, and gladdens the hearts (and opens the checkbooks) of billionaires across the land.

An articulate socialist movement outside the Democratic Party would offer Americans a bolder choice. It would tout the necessity of unions, or some new form of job-holder democracy, for giving workers the institutional muscle to push back against wage-cutting and the spread of precarious employment. It would make a moral case that the domination of campaigns by big money frustrates the popular will, as detailed convincingly by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Winner-Take-All Politics. It would define national health care, funded by progressive taxation, as the hallmark of a civilized society as well as the only serious way to control costs. It would encourage experiments in cooperative ownership and control at the local level.

The revival of social-democracy would be a boon to mainstream Democrats as well. With a serious left on one flank and an uncompromising right on the other, they could make an authentic appeal to those voters who say they hunger for a truly moderate, centrist regime. At the very least, conservatives would have to abandon their Manichean misconceptions and start debating positions their opponents actually hold.

Ironically, the delusion about Obama’s ideology may already be helping “socialism,” at least as a word, to enjoy a bit of a comeback. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last December, about the same number of eighteen-to-twenty-nine year old Americans said they had positive views of socialism as they did of capitalism. Overall, three out of every ten Americans had a positive reaction to “socialism.” Only 50 percent thought warmly about “capitalism.”

Now, it would obviously be a mistake to take this, and similar polls, too seriously. Most of the Americans who say they like “socialism” are undoubtedly reacting to the right-wing charges against a president they like, if not admire. If Obama is a socialist, that sounds all right to them.

But the ubiquity of the term itself may provide an opportunity for radicals to offer the public, for the first time in decades, an argument for socialism grounded in ideals most Americans already cherish: communal responsibility and equal rights. As Michael Harrington, the last great leader of socialists in the U.S., wrote back in 1966, “The democratization of concentrated economic, social, and political power is the only hope for the achievement of Western humanist ideals … [and the] possibility of a new order of things in which the people actually decide their own destiny.” It should be a good time to start such a discussion, since most Americans are rightfully disgusted with the order we have.

Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.