The greatest single weapon in the Democratic Party's arsenal has been its ability to confuse the voters. Even though it has practically defined itself since the 1930s as the party of Big Government, with high taxes and spending, massive regulation and intervention, and continual encroachment on private property, its leaders and spokesmen have vehemently denied that their policies amount to socialism.
But why? Is socialism such a bad thing? Maybe not if you advocate socialistic policies, but maybe so if calling something by its right name will antagonize the voters and lose their support. That's been the predicament of the Democrats as they consistently seek to solve real or imaginary problems with government programs and income redistribution, rather than abiding by the Constitution's protections for free trade and commerce.
There's no point in trying to pin the socialistic tail on the Democratic donkey when the donkey disowns it. Better to define our terms and decide the question based on the relevant principles and salient facts, rather than accusations or denials.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines socialism as follows: 1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
Governmental ownership of production and distribution of goods rather than private property, then, is the essence of socialism. This contrasts with the limited government and largely unfettered trade and commerce by individuals and corporations that have distinguished the United States of America.
How then do we understand the Obama Administration's takeover of banks and other financial institutions, automobile companies and the current proposal to take over the health insurance industry? Plainly, these are all socialistic measures, not just because Republicans say so but because they are examples of what socialism is.
In Europe, where nationalized health care has long been in effect, along with nationalized heavy industry and mining, socialism is more "advanced" than in the United States. When President Obama says that he wants to "transform" America, following the European model is what he has in mind.
Socialists here and in Europe are not enemies of government by the people, or at least they have no intention of replacing it with any sort of dictatorship. During the many decades that they have promoted socialism, they have been at great pains to distinguish themselves from Marxists, who have advocated violent overthrow of so-called "bourgeois" (middle class) democracies and replacement by the "dictatorship of the proletariat."
The difference has turned on very different evaluations of modern democratic government. The Marxists believe that western democracies are a sham, allegedly dominated by the evil capitalists who manipulate the people by money and influence. These corporate chieftains will not, Marxists say, willingly give up their rule, so the only way to change things is through violent revolution.
Marxists have as much scorn for democratic socialists as they do capitalists for their supposedly naive belief that peaceful change is possible, if not their covert cooperation with the enemies of the people. But the democratic socialists believe that, through persuasion and effective politics, the majority can be brought around to socialism without violent revolution, and they now have several decades of success here and in other Western countries to prove it.
However, in spite of two great waves of socialism in America via the New Deal and the Great Society, and the wave now being stirred up by the Obama Administration, a majority of Americans still prefer limited government and free trade and commerce. If there is one overriding reason for this, I would maintain it is their firm belief that they retain the capacity to govern themselves.
That is why, according to recent public opinion polls, a majority now views unfavorably the president they elected last fall. They have been shown by their harsh, bitter experience with the first few months of the new administration that the Democrats are not the political party of the little guy but of Big Government.
This emerging majority for a restoration of fundamental American principles of government may or may not be put off by Democratic denials of the party's commitment to socialism, but they know that party stands for policies that threaten their health care, their contracts and their private property. Truly, socialism is the right name for those policies.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.