What Is Socialism in 2009? – Pacific Research Institute

What Is Socialism in 2009?

It seems that whatever President Obama talks about — whether it’s overhauling health care, or regulating Wall Street, or telling schoolchildren to study hard — his opponents have called him a socialist. “Socialism” was an epithet on many placards at protests in Washington over the weekend. What does the word mean today, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? What role has the label played in American political history?

  • Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, The Nation
  • Patrick Allitt, professor of American history
  • Steven F. Hayward, scholar, American Enterprise Institute
  • Andrew Hartman, historian
  • Terence Ball, political scientist
  • Charles Dunn, professor of government
  • Matthew Dallek, historian
  • Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore, Cornell University

Stoking Irrational Fears

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation, which published a forum in March called “Reimagining Socialism” with Barbara Ehrenreich and others.

When any American reform leader takes on the status quo, he or she confronts a ferocious, well-organized and reactionary opposition. Is it any surprise that right-wing groups now compare President Obama to Hitler and liken his pragmatic health care reform to socialism?

It’s offensive and troubling. But it’s worth invoking history and remembering that Franklin Roosevelt confronted the American Liberty League, which called him a socialist and a Communist. And he faced down Father Coughlin, the demagogic priest who was a cross between Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh in a Roman collar.

Social democracy is about government having a role in improving people’s lives — as it does with Medicare.

History again: the rabid protesters calling President Obama a socialist are representatives of a long national tradition which features an irrational and well-stoked fear of a strong central government. (Mr. Obama has found it more difficult to turn away from the fanatical right than his reform predecessors partly because conservative ideology has been in the saddle for three decades and the recession began too late in the Bush administration to sufficiently discredit its free-market fundamentalism and those who still speak on its behalf.)

Mr. Obama himself acknowledged parallels with previous battles for reform. He said last month, “These struggles always boil down to a contest between hope and fear. That was true in the debate over social security, when F.D.R. was accused of being a socialist. That was true when L.B.J. tried to pass Medicare. And it’s true in this debate today.”

What’s All the Fuss?

Patrick Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University in Atlanta. He is author of “The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History.”

It’s odd that so many critics of the administration should use “socialism” as a devil word. In fact millions of Americans, including many of these critics, are ardent supporters of socialism, even if they don’t realize it and even if they don’t actually use the word. Think of two elements of society that enjoy overwhelming popular support despite being government owned and operated.

American public schools, highways and even the armed forces are organized along socialist lines.

The first is the public schools. Horace Mann, in early 19th-century Massachusetts, pioneered the project of creating publicly funded schools for every child in the state. The idea caught on widely and in less than a century had been emulated by every state in the Union. No Child Left Behind, endorsed by a conservative administration, is the most recent incarnation of this huge, centralized socialist project.

The second example is the highways. Early auto enthusiasts asked Henry Ford to contribute to building a private highway system but he declined to invest and warned them that they should not create the precedent of private road ownership — much better to let the government pay. For a century now, governments — state and federal — have built an astonishing network of utterly “socialist” highways throughout the land. So far as I know, no one has objected to driving along them for that reason.

In the Eye of the Beholder

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.”

There is a famous anecdote about the very first meeting in 1947 of the Mont Pelerin Society, the organization founded by Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and other famous free marketers who later won Nobel prizes and inspired Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, among others. The story goes that von Mises stormed out of one session declaring, “You’re all a bunch of socialists!”

Margaret Thatcher effectively campaigned against “socialism” in Britain, even though it wasn’t really socialism then, either.

None of the oral traditions recall what heresy prompted this extremely prejudicial accusation, for surely no one in that circle was actually advocating genuine socialism. Maybe Friedman wavered on whether there should be any public welfare provisions in the ideal free market state.

But that story has come back to me as I listen to the commotion about people calling Barack Obama a socialist. If we understand socialism in its strict definition — central economic planning and public ownership of the means of production — then the president is obviously not a socialist (with a mild caveat for the auto bailouts, the banks, etc).

But if we step back a moment and consider “socialism” more broadly as a step increase in political control of or intervention in the economy — whether it be through a revival of Keynesian-style stimulus and things like “cash for clunkers” subsidies, or through a government semi-takeover of the health care sector — then the charge appears more salient.

Conservative Principles and Anxieties

Andrew Hartman is an assistant professor of history at Illinois State University. He is the author of “Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School,” and is currently researching a book on the culture wars.

Recent denunciations of Obama’s proposed health-care plan as “socialist” have taken some observers by surprise, especially since the foreign threat of socialism receded two decades ago when the Soviet Union imploded. But, as historians should know, the degree to which conservatives invoke the specter of socialism has always been more calibrated to domestic anxieties than to foreign threats.


Terence Ball is professor of political science at Arizona State University. He is co-author (with Richard Dagger) of “Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal” and co-editor (with Richard Bellamy) of “The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought,” among other books.

Why are some — mostly older, overwhelmingly white — Americans so afraid of “socialism” and, by extension, “socialized medicine”? One explanation is that they don’t actually know what socialism is, namely the public ownership and/or control of the major means of production (mines, mills, factories,
etc.) for the benefit of the public at large. Another is that many older Americans have vivid memories of the cold war and the dreaded U.S.S.R. (the second S standing for “socialist”).

It’s miraculous that Medicare got through Congress at the height of the cold war.

In hindsight it seems strange and almost miraculous that at the height of the cold war a limited form of socialized medicine — Medicare — got through the Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association and the insurance industry, and made it to President Johnson’s desk. (These special interests won’t make that mistake again: they now have a veritable army of lobbyists assaulting Capitol Hill and every congressman there.)

But now the cold war is over. For those in their 20s and 30s, the cold war might as well be ancient history.

To many Americans “socialism” may sound vaguely “foreign” and “un-American.” Those at rallies protesting health reform now may be surprised to know that “socialism” and “socialist” have a long history in American political thought and that those terms weren’t always terms of censure.


Charles W. Dunn, dean of the School of Government at Regent University, served as chairman and vice chairman of the United States J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. He is the author of many books, including “The Enduring Reagan” and “The Future of Conservatism.”

Conservatives argue that liberals through the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society have changed America from a responsibility-based society to a rights-based society. Where once the family, neighborhoods, churches and local communities solved problems at the local level, now the central government plays a far greater role.

Battles against the Great Society never spilled into the streets, but today people are fighting rising socialist intrusions.

Conservatives see President Obama’s policy proposals as unwarranted extensions of government into the lives of individual citizens, creating greater citizen dependence on the government rather than fostering increased citizen independence and personal responsibility. The result: conservatives fear the loss of their historic liberties.

Because President Obama’s health-care proposal is the crown jewel of his agenda, conservatives have seized the moment to stem the tide of increased government control over American society and the economy. They view this as a now-or-never, do-or-die battle. Since the New Deal, the battles over socialist or government intrusions into the lives of Americans have escalated, but now the fight is more intense than ever before.


Matthew Dallek is the author of “The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.” He is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

The raucous debate about how President Obama’s health care reforms will affect the American way of life has led to a surreal discussion about socialism in 2009. While the socialism label is useful to conservative politicians attempting to fire up the faithful and while some far-right critics are racists eager to paint Obama as vaguely un-American, historical memory is also fueling this debate. Several factors are propelling this trope.

The charge reverberates loudly in 2009 because it’s firmly rooted in the conservative political tradition.

Portraying progressives as socialists is partially traceable to late-19th century debates, when defenders of unfettered capital blasted labor radicals and progressives for undermining America’s free markets through a socialistic agenda. The early to mid-20th century witnessed a robust debate about the effects of socialist ideas and socialist politics inside the United States.

From the Red Scare after World War I to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rabid attacks on domestic Communists after World War II, exaggerated fears of left-wing collectivism repeatedly rattled American politics; thus, it’s unsurprising that an ambitious progressive president would bring these fears back into sharp relief, even though the cold war ended two decades ago.


Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore teach American history at Cornell University and are the authors of the forthcoming book, “The Long Exception: An Interpretation of the New Deal from FDR to Obama.”

When socialism can be used interchangeably with fascism — as it often is in the heat of contemporary political debate — Americans are playing with historical fires they do not understand. The muddle is telling.

The issue is on behalf of whose interests government intervenes.

America has not had a politically meaningful socialist movement since that of Eugene Debs early in the last century. The Soviet Union has perished, the Berlin Wall has fallen, and capitalist China is our No. 1 industrial competitor. Against such a political landscape, what meaning could the phrase socialism have even as an epithet?

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top