The President's a socialist, Nancy Pelosi's a communist, and Mr. Coons from Delaware is a bearded Marxist. Nice rhetorical ingredients to boil up in the Tea Party's scalding kettle, but ridiculous as philosophy, history or politics. I know that clarifying the actual meaning of such terms, deployed by ignorant zealots to vilify opponents in our over the top Congressional elections, is unlikely to make much of a political difference. People who use words as clubs are not really interested in their meaning. But just for the record, words do have meanings.
Concepts like libertarianism, liberal democracy, socialism and communism are meant to define attitudes about individualism and collectivism, limited government and big government, and distrust or trust of democracy. We actually have a rather ample store of such terms to frame our democratic beliefs and define the broad spectrum of attitudes we have about government, from total individualist enmity to any and all government to total collectivist affinity for the most corporatist forms of government. The spectrum reads, from pure liberty to pure statism as follows: anarchism, libertarianism, constitutional republicanism, liberal democracy, welfare state democracy, social democracy, socialism, communism (Marxism) and corporatism.
It works like this: Radical individualists at the far end of the spectrum, those who believe that all political authority is illegitimate, are anarchists (not even Rand Paul goes this far). Like those who distrust most but not all government, who distrust government especially with respect to the economy and individual rights, he's a libertarian. Advocates of limited government hemmed in by constitutional authority and rights are constitutional republicans, and most conventional Republicans belong here.
Right in the middle of the spectrum are those who embrace individualism but see in government an instrument of freedom and public purpose; these are liberal democrats, the identity that historically has defined most of the American debate -- liberal democrats like Eisenhower and Nixon favoring more personal liberty and a little less government, liberal democrats like Carter and Clinton insisting that a little more democratic governance actually favors personal liberty. A bit more enthusiasm for how government can realize both public goods and a degree of social justice turns liberal democrats into welfare state democrats, think Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer. Here, government is a vehicle for pursuing common democratic ends such as guaranteeing competition and fair trade, regulating capital and economic markets and assuring a degree of distributive (redistributive) justice as well as a social safety net.
Leaving this centrist position that defines American politics, we move into collectivist territory where individuals are less prized. Moving well beyond welfare state democracy, we arrive at social democracy (call it bottom up socialism like that of Sweden in the '80s),and then socialism (top-down socialism, Chavez style) where government no longer merely regulates the market and creates conditions that abet justice, but begins to own the market and impose justice. With communism, the state owns just about everything, and property, civil society and the market largely vanish, as happened in Cuba and North Korea. Individuals remain theoretically important, but their liberty interests are forfeited. Marxism, bearded or not, denotes not a different stage of communism but points to a theory about history that claims communism is an inevitable consequence of how economic laws unfold. Finally, at the far collectivist end of the spectrum is corporatism, best exemplified in systems like Italian fascism and German national socialism, where the individual has vanished altogether both in theory and practice and where personal liberty ceases to have any meaning at all. No, President George Bush, Jr. was not a fascist and was more a libertarian than a corporatist (though he practiced big government!)
Indeed, the American political discussion starting with the founding debate between advocates of limited government and advocates of democratic activism -- between liberalism and. egalitarianism -- and coursing on through the argument over the New Deal and the Great Society, right down to today's contest about health policy, environmental oversight and financial regulation has pretty much occupied the space defined by this central part of the political spectrum. This means liberal democrats in the middle (Clinton) with limited government constitutional republicans (Reagan)and the occasional libertarian (Rand Paul) to the right and welfare state democrats (Nancy Pelosi) to the left. America has been defined by this centrist debate about how to reconcile individual liberty and democratic egalitarianism, both being seen as valuable. Socialism has never been an American option and certainly is not one today. If anything, the center of the debate has moved slighted to the right.
What then has happened to our political discourse today? Polarization has happened, and extremism, with publicity-seeking pundits and irresponsible candidates refusing to be guided by the standard glossary. Not enough rhetorical payoff. Instead vote-seekers have injected terms like socialism and communism from the collectivist end of the spectrum into the elections, even though they are utterly without genuine political relevance in America. They are nothing more than rabid slurs.
Obama a socialist? Has his administration collectivized the hospitals, turned doctors into a state monopoly, nationalized the insurance companies? Or are we continuing to privatize our security forces, turn school and prisons into for-profit businesses, and let the financial industry self-regulate? President Obama is a market-leaning liberal democrat. Nancy Pelosi is a vigorous advocate of the welfare state and of the social safety net, and she wants to regulate the runaway banks. But that's not communism, folks, that's liberal democracy, and reflects a less egalitarian agenda than the ones pushed by LBJ or FDR.
Bottom line, American politics have played out more or less in the staid middle of the broad political spectrum and for all the noise still do. Yes, an occasional libertarian surge pushes for the revocation of redistribute taxes and an end to government regulation on one side; and an occasional progressivist surge pushes towards New Deal and Great Society interventions in the name of equality and social justice on the other. But when zealots start throwing terms like "socialist" at wan liberal democrats like President Obama, or confusing weak regulation of the health and insurance industries with communist ownership of the means of production, we have not just conceptual confusion and noxious polemics, but abuses of speech pernicious to the very life of democracy.