Salon: Is Barack Obama a socialist?


Is Barack Obama a socialist?

If he is, then so is John McCain. But the charge is just a racial dog whistle anyway. Can you say “welfare queen”?John McCain, struggling to catch up with Barack Obama in the last days of the campaign, has finally found a theme for a campaign that until now has lacked one. He is running for the White House to defend capitalism against socialism. Because Barack Obama in an unguarded moment to Joe the Plumber said he wanted to “spread the wealth,” McCain and Palin are painting the senator from Illinois as a “redistributionist” or “redistributor” (they can’t decide on the appropriate term), a subversive and sinister figure who is peddling “socialism.” It’s not enough for McCain to run against Obama as though he were George McGovern. McCain is trying to equate Obama with Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, the socialist candidates for the presidency of yesteryear. Never mind that Jonah Goldberg has spent a couple of years denouncing liberal fascism. Fascists last week, progressives like Obama are now socialists. Which is to say, “commies.”

Without exception, all of the policies supported by Obama belong to broad categories of public policies that have been supported, in one form or another, by conservative-libertarian thinkers like Friedman and von Hayek and conservative politicians like Reagan, George W. Bush and McCain himself. The differences between them and Obama are differences of degree, not of kind.

But while this is true it may not matter, if McCain’s last-minute clarion call is really a racial “dog whistle.” The McCain campaign may appear to be debating public philosophy, when in fact it is making a disguised appeal to white racism. If that is the case, then “redistributionist” and “socialist” may be intended to be understood by white swing voters as code words that function the way that “welfare queen” did for the Reagan campaign. A “socialist” or “redistributionist” is a politician who taxes white people like Joe the Plumber and gives money to … you know who.

If this is the tactic, then it might be working. The polls are tightening in the final days of the campaign. Should McCain surprise the pundits and pull off a victory, historians may judge that it was because of his desperate insinuation that white people would be taxed to pay for welfare for Latinos and blacks. And if he should lose, conservative operatives planning for the next cycle may decide that this was the right tactic, pursued too late. Whether he wins or loses, by using “socialist” and “redistributionist” in an environment in which they were likely to be interpreted as racially charged smears, John McCain may have damaged not only his reputation but our society.

Talking Points Memo: Race-Tinged Attack Ads Start Flowing From Right In Campaign’s Home Stretch

Talking Points Memo

Race-Tinged Attack Ads Start Flowing From Right In Campaign’s Home Stretch

Meanwhile, another winger outside group, Let Freedom Ring, which has been known to spend serious money, is up with this new spot using Martin Luther King’s “content of their character” line to urge a vote against Obama:

Late Update: A commenter below explains the spot’s rationale:

Seems to me like the target audience on the second one is white Democrats who want to be reassured that they are not racists if they don’t vote for Obama. (See, even that black person doesn’t like him, and he can’t articulate why, either!)

Democratic Strategist: “Voter Fraud,” Race, and the Conservative Base

Democratic Strategist

“Voter Fraud,” Race, and the Conservative Base

Traditionally, Republican “voter fraud” agitation has been designed to distract attention from, if not actually justify, GOP efforts to intimidate or discourage minority voters. We’ll see next Tuesday what sorts of dirty tricks Republicans have in store this time around, but I suspect the current voter-fraud talk reflects a deeper psychological phenomenon among conservatives, not just some tactical ploy.

Hostility to universal sufferage is one of the oldest traditions in American conservatism. It transcends simple elitism and/or racism mainly in arguments that poor people will naturally try to use government to loot the property holdings of their social and economic superiors. And these arguments are not very far from the surface of the McCain campaign this year, given its preoccupation with attacks on Obama’s tax plan for providing “welfare” to people without federal income tax liability (never mind that refundable tax credits to working families who pay high and regressive payroll taxes was an idea once championed by Republicans such as Ronald Reagan).

It’s not too hard to connect the dots here. Barack Obama is an African-American with avid African-American support. African-Americans are participating heavily in early voting opportunities. His “socialist” tax plan will shower African-Americans with welfare benefits. And African-Americans, or their “elitist” Democratic leaders, will break every rule to make this all happen.

In many parts of the country, racial polarization has been the single most reliable vehicle for driving white working-class voters to the GOP, and driving white turnout up sharply. Whether the McCain-Palin campaign is consciously relying on this kind of nasty appeal in Ohio, the South, or elsewhere, I think it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that they are stoking it, not just with caterwauling about “voter fraud,” but with the entire series of attacks on Barack Obama as a radical who wants to tax Joe the Plumber to provide “welfare” to his supporters.

Washington Monthly: OF COURSE IT’S ABOUT RACE

Washington Monthly


Following up on an item from yesterday, John Judis made the casethat the McCain campaign’s argument about “spreading the wealth,” “socialism,” and “redistribution” is ultimately about race.

The argument, Judis said, “is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe “spreading the wealth” as giving their money to blacks. It’s the latest version of Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ argument from 1980. It if it works, it won’t be because most white Americans actually oppose a progressive income tax, but because they fear that Obama will inordinately favor blacks over them.”

I perceive the rhetoric the same way. When McCain tells white working class undecided voters that Obama wants to “take your money and give it to someone else,” he doesn’t say who “someone else” is, but he probably hopes he doesn’t have to.

Matt Feeney calls this approach “a bit loony,” insisting that if McCain were really trying to engage in race-based fear mongering, the Republican campaign would “use the word ‘welfare.'”

But that only helps to prove my point — McCain has been using the word “welfare.” He’s used it in his stump speech (Obama, McCain says, wants to turn the IRS into “a giant welfare agency”), and he’s used it in his television ads.

And why would McCain tell white working class undecided voters that Obama’s tax policies constitute “welfare” and “take your money and give it to someone else”? Here’s a wild guess — it has something to do with exploiting racial fears.

Michael Crowley pointed to this exchange from CNN last night between McCain and Larry King:

KING: Concerning spreading the wealth, isn’t the graduated income tax spreading the wealth? If you I and pay more so that ‘Jimmy’ can get some, some for him — or pay for a welfare recipient, that’s spreading the wealth.

MCCAIN: That’s spreading the wealth in the respect that we do have a graduated income tax. That’s a far cry from taking from one group of Americans and giving to another. I mean that’s dramatically different.


Actually, it’s not different at all. McCain’s argument is incoherent.

Put it this way: either McCain is deliberately trying to exploit racial fears or he hasn’t the foggiest idea what he’s talking about. I’m afraid it’s one or the other.

Talking Points Memo: Race-Baiter McCain

Talking Points Memo

Race-Baiter McCain

New McCain Line: Obama’s taking your money to give to his welfare-lovin’ peeps.

Judis could see it yesterday before McCain uncorked this latest belch of his filth.

    Talking Points Memo: All From the Same Script

    Talking Points Memo

    All From the Same Script

    From John Judis

    “I mention the Bradley effect because I think, too, that McCain and Sarah Palin’s attack against Obama for advocating “spreading the wealth” and for “socialism” and for pronouncing the civil rights revolution a “tragedy” because it didn’t deal with the distribution of wealth is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe “spreading the wealth” as giving their money to blacks. It’s the latest version of Reagan’s “welfare queen” argument from 1980. It if it works, it won’t be because most white Americans actually oppose a progressive income tax, but because they fear that Obama will inordinately favor blacks over them. I don’t doubt that this argument will have some effect, but I suspect it’s too late and that worries about McCain and Republican handling of the economy will overshadow these concerns.”

    Just more McCain filth.

    WSJ: Obama Wants Social Security to Be a Welfare Plan


    Obama Wants Social Security to Be a Welfare Plan

    Imagine this: Barack Obama proposes a Social Security payroll tax cut for low earners. Workers earning up to $8,000 per year would receive back the full 6.2% employee share of the 12.4% total payroll tax, up to $500 per year. Workers earning over $8,000 would receive $500 each, with this credit phasing out for individuals earning between $75,000 and $85,000.

    While Social Security has always been progressive, many would say this plan goes too far and risks turning Social Security into a “welfare program.” Low earners receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes — meaning their “net tax” is already negative — and Mr. Obama’s plan would increase net subsidies from the program.

    Moreover, this payroll tax cut plan would reduce Social Security’s tax revenues by around $710 billion over the next 10 years. If made permanent, the Obama tax cut would increase Social Security’s long-term deficit by almost 60% and push the program into insolvency in 2034, versus 2041 under current projections.

    To fill the hole in Social Security’s finances, Mr. Obama would increase income taxes on high earners and pour that money into Social Security. This would be the first time that income tax revenues have been used to finance Social Security, which has always relied on its own dedicated payroll tax to differentiate itself from other government programs. Filling the gap with higher taxes on high earners would further increase Social Security’s progressivity, pushing it closer toward a welfare-program approach.

    So Mr. Obama has in essence proposed cutting Social Security taxes for low earners, which would shift the system toward a “welfare” approach and sharply increase its long-term deficit. To fill the funding gap, he will raise taxes on high earners and funnel the money into Social Security, making the system even more progressive and breaking a long tradition against funding Social Security with income taxes.

    Mr. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He blogs on Social Security policy at

    Media Matters: Savage: “Why should a welfare recipient have the right to vote? They’re only gonna vote themselves a raise”

    Media Matters

    Savage: “Why should a welfare recipient have the right to vote? They’re only gonna vote themselves a raise”

    Summary: On his radio show, Michael Savage asked: “Do you think a person on welfare has the right to vote? I don’t.” He later added: “Why should a welfare recipient have the right to vote? They’re only gonna vote themselves a raise.”

    Comment from Left Field: Two Dog Whistles (UPDATE)

    Comment from Left Field

    Two Dog Whistles (UPDATE)

    I say all of this because through the course of the day I let two potentially racial dog whistles blow right past me and I didn’t even notice.  From someone who claims to be hyper-sensitive to this kind of thing, I was a little ashamed.

    The first is that of “socialism”.  If you’re going, “huh?” right now, don’t fret, I was also not too terribly long ago.  There’s no denying the fact that the latest and greatest tactic from the McCain campaign has to paint Obama as a socialist, or that he is prescribing socialism for this country, or that if he is elected we will ultimately become a socialist country.

    I’ve never really thought much about this whole tactic in racial terms.  This seemed to me to be the usage of two different mechanisms at once; neither of which having much to do directly with race.  On one hand, it drudges up the old cold war anxieties that continue to plague this nation on all things socialist and communist.  As I’ve discussed with at least one old friend in the past (who will for now remain nameless), despite the belief outside of this country that socialism in some form or another is acceptable, inside this country due to lingering cold war apprehensions, generations will come and go before any kind of meaningful socialism movement could take root here in earnest (caveats: I am myself a capitalist, and there is the possibility that the current economic crisis could hasten socialisms progress towards acceptability in this country).

    But as I would come to find out, the label, “socialist” actually does have a more direct racial implication.

    J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972, used the term liberally to describe African Americans who spent their lives fighting for equality.

    Those freedom fighters included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Civil Rights Movement; W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1909 helped found the NAACP which is still the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization; Paul Robeson, a famous singer, actor and political activist who in the 1930s became involved in national and international movements for better labor relations, peace and racial justice; and A. Philip Randolph, who founded and was the longtime head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a leading advocate for civil rights for African Americans.

    Now this is direct historical context that takes my second approach to the socialist label, the indirect racial relation to otherize Obama, and sort of flips the concept on its head.  It’s been done directly in the past specifically in a racial context.

    Still, I am initially unwilling to go as far as the author of the post excerpted above in condemning the usage of the label as a definitive dog whistle on the merits of his historical argument alone.  After all, if I didn’t know that socialism could be a racial dog whistle until today, then there are going to be plenty of people out there that still don’t know.

    But there is a crack in this wall of logic that begins with one aspect of the Republican ticket, namely that while I’m not old enough to have personally experienced this specific dog whistle, McCain is.  I’m still not completely sold at this point in the argument, but there is a far greater probability for McCain to understand the full context than there is for me.

    What makes this a credible candidate as an honest to goodness racial dog whistle is that it ends up dovetailing with another term that has been used an awful lot on the trail, “welfare.”

    Now, I really am ashamed at not having my racist alarm going off once the McCain camp started dialing up the welfare rhetoric specifically because I know that welfare is a racial dog whistle.  It’s used stereotypically, for instance in the term “Welfare Queen,” just as that stereotype can be used to generate racial tension among white people who feel that these so-called welfare queens are leaches on hard working taxpayers.

    The message that this sends to voters for whom race will play a larger factor is also pretty easy to pick up on: You think black people are getting a free ride now?  Just wait until they elect a black president.

    But to see how these two dog whistles work in concert, I’m going to turn things over to Rachel Maddow who shows how “socialist” and “welfare” dovetail with a possible attempt to manually instigate a Bradley Effect.

    (ed note: I’m having a difficult time getting the player to run properly, so please go watch the video here)

    WashPo: The Power of Two Myths

    Washington Post

    The Power of Two Myths

    As its days dwindle down to a precious few, the McCain campaign is giving new life to old myths. In an attempt to suppress minority voting, it has conjured up the specter of voter fraud, though there is no evidence that voter fraud exists. Even more impressive is its attempt to resurrect the welfare queens against whom Ronald Reagan used to fulminate, though the stories Reagan told about them had no basis in fact, either. Welfare was pretty much abolished in the mid-1990s, of course, but an increasingly desperate John McCain is transporting us back to the wedge issues of yesteryear.

    To do so, he is accusing Barack Obama of bringing back the discarded policies of welfare by calling for a tax cut that will apply to all taxpayers, including workers who pay payroll but not income taxes because their earnings are too low. A tax break for the working poor — janitors, waitresses, employees of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s — becomes, in McCain’s telling, a subsidy from all the Joe the Plumbers to undeserving people who live off the dole.

    Back in Reagan’s day, the whole point of attacking welfare recipients, of course, was to rally susceptible white voters to the Republican column by stoking their animus at African Americans whom they (wrongly) believed comprised the majority of welfare recipients. It enabled Reagan and his right-wing crew to play the race card without actually having to make racially specific characterizations. Which is precisely the tack McCain is taking as he makes a last-ditch attempt to pull every possible vote out of Appalachian Ohio and Pennsylvania.