02/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rush, Right Misguided on "Nationalization"

The right and Republicans have found an enemy far more terrifying than terrorism. It's insidious. It's dangerous. It's un-American. It's, it's nationalization! Oh, the horror!

You may have heard the conservative set toss that word around in recent days, especially in terms of the banking crisis. While they may think they're being clever, the excessive use of "nationalization" reveals a severe lack of political imagination, not to mention a hazy understanding of American history.

In case you haven't been paying attention, critics claim that the economic stimulus package, which could include expanding federal ownership of troubled banks, will give the government omnipotent control over our markets and undue decades of American financial evolution. It's a compelling enough argument, sure, and one that seems to have quite the shelf life.

The specter of socialism -- and its tendency toward state ownership -- became an integral part of last year's election. Countless citizens declared that Barack Obama's suggestions were far too red. And now, with Obama in office and his team considering a sweeping stimulus package that could bring banks under Washington's umbrella, those critics are growing even more ferocious, not to mention misguided.

One need look no further than Rush Limbaugh, who infamously declared this weekend that he hopes the President falls on his face. Because, as a red-blooded conservative, Limbaugh wouldn't want to see "socialism" succeed. You may have heard or read Rush's remarks, but they're too deliciously over-the-top to ignore: "I shamelessly say, no, I want him to fail, if his agenda is a far-left collectivism, some people say socialism, as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?"

Limbaugh's not the only one saying such things. John McCain, who himself used such rhetoric during the election, raised the specter on Fox News Sunday when he surreptitiously used Japan's '90s-era economic rewrite, which included nationalization of the banks, as an example of why the Democrat's plan won't work.

Meanwhile, not-so-darling conservative operative Brian Darling this week described Obama's plan as "socialism plain and simple." He went on, "Any more government control of our banking system [will] destroy America's private banking system and will not solve the problems facing the financial sector... Nationalizing banks is a socialist idea that conservatives should fight." And Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn't help matters this weekend when she used the word "nationalization" while discussing the stimulus package with George Stephanopoulos. She made a real quick backtrack lest she be burned at the stake.

Unfortunately for Limbaugh and his ilk, they're making a few grave mistakes. First, their automatic link between nationalization and socialism skips an essential component of socialist takeover. Yes, socialism can involve nationalization, but they aren't mutually exclusive. Those who assume this potential package could lead to socialism are forgetting that socialistic nationalization typically involves expropriation: the stripping of property for redistribution. That has not happened here, nor does it seem likely.

Yes, some shareholders and management have and will be replaced. (Hello, Citigroup.) But the banks went to Washington and asked for help. They were not forced with a gun to their heads. Quite the contrary, they went on their own and practically fell on their knees before Congress and George Bush's White House. And they're hardly alone in this crisis. We all played a role in making this mess -- and we must all lend a helping hand in the rescue mission.

If we all agree to take on the burden -- and we will have no choice, one way or the other -- then "nationalization" should be viewed as more akin to "nationalism" than "socialism."

In its purest form, nationalism's a sense of responsibility and belonging to a set nation. It can be geographic, religious or any other -- to borrow Benedict Anderson's iconic term -- "imagined community."

British political theorist Roger Griffin offers a fairly well-rounded definition of nationalistic ideologues: "The carriers of this ideology attribute to their nation a distinctive cultural identity which sets it apart from other nations and gives it a special place in the historical process." Well, I'll be! That generic definition describes hosts of American patriots -- from George Bush to Barack Obama.

We Americans pride ourselves on our distinctive history and rebellious spirit. For many years, we reveled -- openly or privately -- in what seemed like a plush, isolated, culture of consumption. That culture's now imploded and we find ourselves in a whole new era. It may not be very glamorous, but it's all ours -- and we have to own it!

During his inaugural speech last week, President Obama urged the American public to face our collective and at-times alienating shift with the gusto that makes this nation so great.

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

In the end, the "nationalization" question comes down to ownership -- who owns this nation? Is it private banks and executives buying new corporate jets? Is it Bernie Madoff, who allegedly lost a good portion of the country's cash? No. It's you, it's me -- it's the everyday American who loves this nation.

Now, some naysayers are probably sticking to their guns and saying, "Well, that's just not how we do things in this country." That's because, as financial historian Charles Geisst told the New York Times this week, "[Nationalization] is just not a term in the American vocabulary. We think of it as something foreigners do to us, not something we do." Those who make that "alien" argument are woefully shortsighted.

Many of us weren't around at the time, but the government took control of the railway system during World War I, and then again in 1976 with the Consolidated Rail Corporation. September 11th spurred Washington to take over airport security. While some terminals have again taken to private companies, the government continues to hold most of the power. All of these events went down in times of war, strife and fear. Those ailments still plague this nation -- and there's no cure on the horizon.

Yes, nationalization can be revolutionary, but that's not always a bad thing. The Congress of the Confederation used its power to establish -- and maintain -- the Bank of North America during the war for independence. Alexander Hamilton, our nation's first treasury secretary, wrote in 1791 that the bank's creation wisely united the "influence and interest of the moneyed men with the resources of the government," a move that gave the nation the "durable and extensive credit of which it stands in need."

The tough times we face now may require equally revolutionary tactics. And coming together as a nation to save ourselves may be the most patriotic thing an American can do in this day and age.