America the Confused
by Pablo Castillo Diaz
May 11, 2009 | 7315 views | 0 0 comments | 91 91 recommendations | email to a friend | print
My favorite yardstick of Obama’s first 100 days is the staggering gap between two articles written by Jon Meacham in Newsweek. In the first one, published a few days before the election under the headline “America the Conservative”, Meacham warned the likely winner that the United States remains a center-right country. In the second one, less than four months later, the cover proclaimed, in big block letters, “We Are All Socialists Now.” Magazines print hyperbolic headlines even during uneventful times, so it’s not surprising what happens during a global financial meltdown. “The End of Capitalism as we know it,” “The End of Neo-Liberalism,” and “The Revenge of Karl Marx,” are but a few recent examples.

To make matters worse, Rasmussen released a poll a few weeks ago revealing that only 53 percent of Americans prefer capitalism to socialism. The poll also found that support for socialism is quite high among young people. The international community spent a full century asking why the United States is the only industrialized country without a significant socialist movement or Labor party. Now Americans are befuddling expectations once again.

It has been 103 years since H. G. Wells in The Future In America and the German sociologist Werner Sombart in Why Is There No Socialism In The United States first dealt with this question. Lenin, Trotsky, and Engels were all perplexed by the fact that there was no class-consciousness or revolutionary appetite in the most industrialized country in the world. Throughout the 20th century, Antonio Grasmci, Leon Samson, Louis Hartz, Michael Harrington, and Seymour Martin Lipset, among others, argued that its unique history and social structure explained the American exception. The Rasmussen poll might appear to defy an entire sub-discipline of study.

And yet, in the latest presidential election, the Socialist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, each netted about seven thousand votes out of 130 million voters. The Green Party, with the endorsement of the Workers World Party, received 0.12 percent of the vote, while Ralph Nader, running as an independent, obtained just 0.5. (The socialist Eugene Debs, who managed to attract six percent of the vote in 1912 and 1920 –and did so while behind bars, no less-, would not be proud). And the most progressive candidate in the Democratic Party, Dennis Kucinich, dropped his bid for the nomination after failing to draw more than 2 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucus. The American left, whatever that may be, can be appalled by Obama’s choice of fervent Rubinites for his economic team, his 4 percent increase of the Pentagon budget, and his hawkish approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that barely makes a dent in Obama’s 70 percent approval ratings.

The New Yorker’s Hendrick Hertzberg correctly deduced from the Rasmussen poll that, by equating socialism with slightly higher taxes on the wealthiest, universal health care, and the mixed, social capitalism of highly successful European countries, Republicans have undermined the negative potency of the word. When socialism becomes cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans and the yet unfulfilled promise of changing the top marginal income-tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, is it any wonder that socialism has become fashionable again?

However, I would suggest that, most crucially, this poll reflects Americans’ complete lack of internally coherent political ideologies, as well as a general ignorance of what these labels even mean- something that has been proved many times over in polls conducted over the past two decades. (For example, according to one 2002 poll, a majority of Americans believe that the Marxist dictum "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” is included in the US Constitution). In the United States, most people favor lower taxes, more government programs, and balanced budgets. I don’t know what that would look like, but voodoo economics doesn’t quite capture it. Perhaps Philip Converse was right when he concluded more than four decades ago that only around ten percent of Americans have a coherent belief system, and the rest are unengaged, uninformed, or fickle.

If we are witnessing a political realignment of sorts, like in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980, socialism is the wrong word. European social capitalism does not apply either, especially when the large gap between the US and Europe in government spending as percentage of GDP is expected to close only by a handful of points. That hardly merits comparisons with France or Sweden. Americans will continue to have extremely regressive taxes –especially payroll, capital gains, and state taxes-, meager unemployment benefits, maternity leave, and paid vacation days, a grossly segregated school system, an inflated military budget, and an expected uphill battle for overdue health care reform. The IMF, Alan Greenspan, Richard Posner, and other unrepentant luminaries, will suddenly advocate nationalization to save the banks and blame market failures and excessive deregulation without even skipping a beat, and few will notice or care. No uproar, social mobilization, or prosecutions will follow the layoffs and the overnight disappearance of forty or fifty percent of the pension and retirement funds of millions of Americans. And none of it would by now surprise Engels, Trotsky, Gramsci, or other real socialists.

Pablo Castillo Diaz teaches political science at Lehman College and Fordham University.

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