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Top U.S. Socialist Says Barack Obama is Not One of Them

5 years ago
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If a space alien landed on American soil tomorrow, it could be forgiven for thinking the president of the United States also represents a place called "Socialism."

A quick tour of the Web turns up hundreds of socialist-inspired images of Barack Obama-- Obama as Che Guevara on "Che Obama Socialist" t-shirts; Obama as a radical Marxist at Obama4Socialism.net. Even the Investor's Business Daily penned a series of editorials on the Obama agenda called, "The Audacity of Socialism."

And when President Obama announced he'd be giving a back-to-school message to students, now-famous Florida GOP'er, Jim Greer, said it would "spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

So if the United States has elected a socialist president, the socialists must be pretty excited, right? Claiming just a single U.S. Senator (Vermonter Bernie Sanders) and exactly zero members of the House of Representatives as their own, putting a socialist in the White House would represent the greatest achievement of any socialist alive today.

But there's just one problem. The socialists won't claim Obama as their own. They won't even call him a socialist.

Frank Llewellyn, the National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America, the country's largest socialist organization, said Obama is most definitely not one of them. "He's not any kind of socialist at all," Llewellyn told me this week. He called the president "a market guy," which is hardly a compliment coming from a man with serious reservations about market capitalism.

"He's not challenging the power of the corporations," Llewellyn added. "The banking reforms that have been suggested are not particularly far reaching. He says we must have room for innovation, but we had innovation -- look where it got us. So I just...I can't..I mean it's laugh out loud, really."

Llewellyn offered his belief that Republicans have historically called opponents "socialists" in order to stop moderate reforms, and that the new stickiness of the Obama/socialist association is one part misinformation, one part ignorance. "The Republicans are doing the same thing they did when Roosevelt was president -- confusing somebody who is trying to save capitalism from itself with somebody who is trying to destroy it. (Obama) is not trying to destroy capitalism."

Llewellyn did, however, have kind words for GOP Chairman Michael Steele, to whom he suggested -- and it sounded only half-in-jest -- he owes a thank you note. "We have more media attention as a result of this stuff than anything else in the last 10 years," he said.

Below is the full Q&A with Mr. Llewellyn, who in his previous life owned a small business.

Q. Where on the scale does Obama fall on socialism?

A. There are many ways we can say that Obama is not a socialist, and that he is in fact governing as a centrist, but that doesn't necessarily get people to listen. Clearly the Republicans are saying it since that's all they've got to say. I don't believe they're going to stop making this charge.

It's good for me, we have more media attention as a result of this stuff than anything else in the last 10 years. When I announce our membership numbers, I'm contemplating sending Michael Steele a letter thanking him.

Q. Is there anything in President Obama's agenda that does ring true to socialists? Is there any element that has its roots in socialism?

A. We don't have a blueprint for socialism. We're not a party, we're a membership organization. We haven't organized ourselves as a party precisely because socialism as a political construct is so weak in this country.

We actually did support Obama over Bush and we often will make political choices if we think they're important. They're not based on which one is socialist, because usually in most cases, unless it's Bernie Sanders, there isn't a socialist alternative. But many times it's important to make a choice and we'll do that. We certainly thought Obama would be a better president for the country than John McCain.

Q. On health care reform, are you advocating any particular path?

A. We've always been single payer people. We were for single payer back when Clinton proposed health care reform, and we've done a lot of work to educate people about that. But single payer is not what I would call a "socialized" medical system. It doesn't make health care professionals employees of a government-run entity; it just says who is going to write the check.

Q. Your best case scenario would be if doctors were employed by the government?

A. I would say the only country where you can talk about socialized medicine is in Britain where you have a national health service where they're paid by the government and most costs are run through the government. I would say that's a socialized system. You can have national systems, most of them we would argue if you allow for-profit insurance you're not going to get effective health insurance. And it's certainly not going to be cost-effective health insurance because of the huge profits these health insurance companies want to make.

So if you look at other countries that have national health systems that include private insurance, there are usually requirements that they're not for-profit. There could be other avenues of approaching it, but we happen to think the single payer model along the lines of the Canadian system is what would work here.

Q. Is there a particular tax system that would be a "socialist" tax system?

A. Generally speaking, we support a progressive income tax system. Certainly we support rolling back the Bush tax cuts, and we would say you have to go back further to roll back the Reagan cuts if you're going to implement the reforms that are necessary and pay for them. It's amazing that conservatives don't want to pay for anything. In Europe, they have income taxes, but they also have VAT; we think that's not progressive. I wouldn't say there's a 100 percent agreement among socialists around the world on taxes, but most would believe that taxes ought to be based on the ability to pay.

Q. On the school controversy, what was your reaction to people saying that the president speaking to schools is socialist? What goes through your mind?

A. The same thing that's gone through my mind every time the Republicans talk about socialism. It's silly, surreal, uninformed, and it certainly doesn't reflect what modern socialists think, and it doesn't reflect what Obama thinks. Obama's a market guy! Obama believes in markets. He probably spoke more about the role of the markets in the primary than Clinton did. So, there's no question that the Republicans are doing the same thing they did when Roosevelt was president -- confusing somebody who is trying to save capitalism from itself with somebody who is trying to destroy it. He's not trying to destroy capitalism.

And this school thing is just ridiculous.

Q. Is Obama a socialist?

A. No.

Q. Is he a secret socialist?

A. He's not a secret socialist. He's not any kind of socialist at all. He's not challenging the power of the corporations. The banking reforms that have been suggested are not particularly far reaching. He says we must have room for innovation. But we had innovation -- look where it got us. So I just...I can't...I mean laugh out loud, really.

I was on Glenn Beck recently and he said Canada is a socialist country. Well, there is a party in Canada that's called "socialist" within the Democratic party, that's won some provincial elections, never won a federal election. It would be news to them that Canada is socialist. So it's just unserious.

They always use socialism to try to defeat moderate reforms...just because something is government run doesn't mean it's socialist. I've never heard anybody say we have a socialist army.

Q. What do you want people to know about socialism?


A. There have been hundreds and hundreds of books about that. But to put it simply, I would say socialists want to constrain and restrict the tremendous destructive capacity and outcomes that can come out of the capitalist system. We're going through something right now where people are in denial about the aftershocks that we're going to have as a result of the financial crisis. We think that you cannot have a equitable system unless you constrain the power of corporations to do things and you constrict the markets in same ways. The markets can do good things. We'd like to keep the good things that markets do but we'd like to constrain the negative.

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Space Pope

"Socialism" is just anything that, in my neck of the woods (the southeast), middle-aged and elderly white people don't like. It's "foreign" and conjures up images of Soviet bread lines, unelected guys in Mao suits ordering when people can go to the bathroom, and lazy and unproductive workers. When you've lived in the hyper-capitalist U.S. all your life, had very little exposure to other parts of the world (that didn't involve separated-from-the-locals military service), and fed a daily diet of how evil the "socialist commies" are, why would the kind of people who through around "socialist" as a mudslinging term think any way else?

I wish Llewellyn and the rest of DSA the best of luck in offering a genuine alternative to two very pro-capitalist parties, but until the mental baggage associated with "socialism" goes away, DSA has no meaningful chance. I'm predicting the 22nd century myself, and that's being an optimist.

July 21 2010 at 3:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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