By Allan Uthman
Now that fiscal “conservatives” have devastated this country in ways that only the most knuckleheaded can deny (or blame on Barney Frank), it seems that “liberal” just doesn’t pack the epithetic wallop it once did. Just a few years ago, it was enough to tar a Democrat as a liberal to hurt him in the polls, but Barack Obama hasn’t even done much to evade the charge. People may just be thinking that the liberals might not be so bad, considering that they have turned out to be right about seemingly every policy argument of the past decade or so.
So what does a floundering Republican candidate say to damage his opponent’s image? Well he has to kick the red-scare machine up a notch. The next level up from “liberal” is “socialist.”
To a lot of Americans, who are more likely to remember the entire cast of Celebrity Apprentice than to have ever read a book about economics or political science, “socialism” evokes images of totalitarian dictators—Castro, Kim Jong Il, and the like. But like capitalism, socialism is not a political system; it is an economic one. In a nation where every facet of public policy is crammed into a one-dimensional ideological spectrum, with only two directions, left and right, it is basically impossible to express this in the approved nomenclature. The fact is, a democracy, or a dictatorship, can be either socialist or capitalist. But the best countries to live in in this world, relying on objective data, are Democracies in which capitalism and socialism are blended—like America. It is true that capitalist principles of competitive markets, of better reward for better service, are undeniably good ones. But it is just as true that a society that doesn’t do anything to alleviate the grave economic injustices that inevitably arise from unregulated capitalism isn’t worth a damn. Democracies that address the economic needs of their people are just better places to live, period.
This is simple, basic stuff. Every developed nation in the world has a progressive tax structure. If you want to call that socialism, that’s fine, as long as you can acknowledge that there isn’t a country in the world you’d feel comfortable walking around in that isn’t somewhat socialist. As long as you can admit that George Bush(both), Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were socialists. The only arguments these Republicans have about the tax base are about exactly how progressive the rates should be, and how much of it to give to whom. John McCain doesn’t advocate a flat tax, so apparently he is also a socialist. Sarah Palin runs a state that shares oil profits with its citizenry directly. That actually is socialism.
But socialism is just one of the tainted, inappropriate buzzwords in McCain’s arsenal. Lately he’s been bringing out the bazooka of perceived Caucasian victimhood: “Welfare.” It’s not too surprising McCain’s flailing campaign, which has been desperate to cultivate racial resentment, would resort to this Reaganesque tactic, but the logical contortions involved are pretty astounding. The argument goes like this: Obama says he’ll cut taxes for 95% of people, but only 60% or so actually pay income taxes. Therefore, he is going to take your money and literally give it away to deadbeats. This, so it goes, is welfare.
It’s pretty dumb on its face. First, there’s the fact that most taxpayers, and especially low-wagers, pay more in payroll taxes than income tax, and that payroll taxes make up 40% of federal revenue, having grown steadily without media notice. McCain omits this, creating the impression among non-CPA yokels that 40% of the country is just riding their coattails. Of course Obama means 95% of people who work and pay taxes. But based on a willful misinterpretation of the 95% figure, McCain and his surrogates push the idea that Obama has some big plan to take little Jimmy’s college tuition fund and send it to Tyrone’s baby-momma for more guns and crack. Spread the wealth around! Spread the wealth around!
It’s not surprising, as I said, that a losing GOP campaign would try to revive the welfare queen imagery of 1980 to stir a reaction in, ahem, “low information” voters, but what is disturbing is that the argument has not been refuted, or even examined, although it has been prevalent for several days. It just isn’t true (there was a single credit in Obama’s tax plan that wasn’t tied to work, which has since been changed, but even as it was, a measly 2% of it would have gone to people who weren’t working), but nobody in the press seems to have noticed. These days, the press doesn’t see it as their job to scrutinize the messages of candidates; it’s enough to simply report them and let the perceptions form as they may. And the Obama campaign, with its penchant for broad, sweeping themes and unease with specifics, hasn’t effectively refuted McCain’s outlandish claims.
This is how false premises are formed in the minds of voters. When the press has abdicated its authority and given over to a format of competing realities, it is up to the campaigns alone to fact-check each other. And if they stumble for just a moment, a completely erroneous idea can become so well-pounded into the public mind that it can become impossible to dislodge. Obama can and should blast McCain as the protector of hedge fund managers and oil tycoons, but if he and his army of surrogates do not specifically address the lies McCain’s camp is trotting out in unison, they are losing the truthiness war.
Well, here’s a fact: Two thirds of profitable U.S. corporations pay no income taxes whatsoever. Think about that. Nothing. You can be forgiven for not knowing that, because even though it is obviously newsworthy, and just flat out insane, somehow it hasn’t made its way into discussions of the tax code in the corporate press. In fact, John McCain thinks our corporate tax rate is too high, and he wants to cut it. It hardly matters, I guess—any percentage of nothing is still nothing. The fact that the wealthiest entities on the planet are skating on their taxes while dishwashers have money extracted from their measly paychecks on a weekly basis would seem like a talking point tailor-made to slap all the new plumber fans out there into relative fiscal sobriety, but Obama hasn’t brought it up.
No, about the only people out there who are willing to go full-on real about our government’s longstanding corporatist policies are third party hopelesses like Ralph Nader. Nader was in town last week, at a well-attended rally on his “Embrace the Futility” campaign tour. I asked him whether the socialism label was really applicable to the Wall Street bailout. I was hoping he’d make the point, as Naomi Klein has made, that real socialism would entail nationalizing something profitable, an oil company, say, rather than simply buying the market’s garbage and taking a huge loss for private interests. Instead, he told a story about his dad: “When I was a kid, my dad told me once, he said, ‘Son, capitalism will never die, because just when it is about to collapse, socialism will come in and save it.’ ”
It’s a good point. That’s exactly what happened when the 1929 crash devastated this nation, and it’s probably what will happen now. But if socialism is saving our butts, it hardly seems fair to keep spitting on its name. If most Americans had a clear-eyed view of what socialism actually meant, they’d probably want more of it, but most have a tainted or flatly ignorant notion of it.
Now, if you’re a wealthy person, then it is, perhaps, in your own self-interest to oppose socialism. Then again, there are rich Swedes, too. But if you want to know what socialism means to the average American, it means not having to fret constantly about how to afford health insurance, only to find that you are not covered when you actually need it. It means you can go to college without getting stuck with a huge, ever-expanding ball of debt you can never actually pay. It means getting too old to work doesn’t doom you to spend your remaining years in shameful poverty. It means you don’t have to step over old men in the street, feigning deafness to their pathetic pleas. It means, in real, non-metaphorical terms, a better life for all of us, with less worry, less fear, less dread that any day, for reasons beyond your control, a stroke of fate can cause your whole life to fall apart.
But that, apparently, is un-American.