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Political Analysis: The New Fear Of Socialism


Conservative politicians and pundits are warning America about President Obama's "socialist" agenda. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner examines where these new concerns about socialism got started.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After years of being concerned about terrorism, many Americans are now voicing their fear of a new ‘ism.’ Socialism is turning into the concern of the hour for political conservatives, rightwing media personalities and many of the people who listen to them. They say the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Washington have a socialist agenda for the United States and they cite efforts to reform the nation's healthcare system as prime evidence of that agenda. The American public hasn't had too much to do with the word socialism as a political insult in quite some time. It harkens back to the Cold War days, when calling someone a Socialist was just a little less awful than calling them a Communist. And since most economists agree our current recession was caused by unregulated excesses in the free market, some find it ironic that now socialism has been revived as a threat to America. Here to explain where all the talk about socialism is coming from is my guest, KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen. I am ready.

CAVANAUGH: All right. Well, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you heard people voice concerns about a socialist agenda? And do you think socialism should be thought of as a threat? Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Gloria, you know, this term socialism is bandied about by a lot of people. We may not all have a crystal clear idea what it means, so give us socialism 101.

PENNER: Well, yeah, that’s understandable. It’s really an umbrella term. It refers to various theories of economic organization advocating public or direct worker ownership and administration of the means of production and allocation of resources. It’s also characterized by a society with equal access—that word is important—equal access to resources for all individuals with compensation based on the amount of labor expended. So the more you work, the more money you should be able to earn. Now, most socialists share the view that capitalism, which is our current system, unfairly concentrates power and wealth among a small segment of society that controls that capital and gets its wealth through exploitation, and that it creates an unequal society and doesn’t provide equal opportunities for everyone to maximize their potential, and it doesn’t utilize technology and resources to their maximum potential. And the kind of capitalism that we saw in the last eight years, which, as you referred to, demonstrated excesses, unregulated excesses. That’s sort of an example of that. There is a dividing feature in the socialist movement between reformists and revolutionaries on how a socialist economy should be established. For example, some socialists say complete nationalization of the means of production and distribution and exchange, and others advocate state control of capital within the framework of a market economy. So there are the two ends right there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, as – also, as I said in the opening, we haven’t had too much talk about socialism in American political dialogue in recent years so I wonder where this new concern originates?

PENNER: Well, it originates, really, with a belief among some that President Obama and the Democratic leadership in congress would want to abolish private property and take over the economy of the United States. I mean, we’re hearing from ordinary people who seem legitimately scared of socialism coming to America. How can that be? You know, it’s impossible to believe and yet there are two fundamental issues. The first is that many Americans simply don’t understand what socialism is, and I don’t blame them. You have to do a little bit of studying to sort of ferret out what it truly is. And since Joe the Plumber told Fox News during the 2008 presidential campaign that—at that time he was candidate—Obama’s plan to spread the wealth around kind of felt like a socialist idea, well then rightwing media sources have incorrectly used the term to characterize virtually all Democrat policies. The difference between the fear of that we don’t understand and the fear of that we should understand but don’t because of misleading use of loaded vocabulary, that’s unacceptable. It leads to trouble.

CAVANAUGH: Now from what you say, a response to this man that we’ve come to know as Joe the Plumber…


CAVANAUGH: …by candidate Barack Obama, something along the lines of sharing the wealth or spreading the wealth or something like that was actually seized on at the time by the McCain campaign.

PENNER: It was, and the McCain campaign and also it was Sarah Palin. They picked up on the word socialist. It went something like this. Senator Obama had been campaigning outside Toledo, Ohio on October 12th last year. That’s when he met Joe Wurzelbacher who works for Newell Plumbing. And Wurzelbacher said to him, I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000, 270, $280,000 a year. Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it? This is when Obama was saying we’re going to tax the wealthy more than people earning under $250,000. So Obama explained his tax plan and he said, yes, that the portion that was more than 250 would be increased from 36 to 39% but he also mentioned that his plan includes a 50% small business tax credit for healthcare and a proposal to eliminate the capital gains tax for small businesses that increase in value. So what he said is, his tax plan—this is Obama speaking—would be good for the economy because it gives bigger breaks for people with lower incomes and you’re going to be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who want your plumbing services and who can afford to hire you. So, he said, I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody. He probably wishes he hadn’t used that phrase because John McCain stepped up his rhetoric against his Democrats’ discussion of increasing taxes on the wealthy and he compared his plan to socialist programs, and then Sarah Palin joined the bandwagon and they were off and running.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the new concerns being voiced by conservative politicians and pundits about socialism. All right, we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and let’s speak with Kyle in Escondido. Good morning, Kyle. Welcome to These Days.

KYLE (Caller, Escondido): Good morning. Yes, my problem is that I don’t think there’s a problem with socialism when our biggest trade partner is a communist country. Seems like Walmart is a front for China. So everything I see in Walmart comes from China, China’s communist, I don’t think socialism is an issue. Half of our country is socialist already. All right, thanks. I’ll take my comment off the air.

PENNER: Well, you know, I – I think that China has learned the joys of capitalism actually. (clearing throat) Excuse me. And that what we’re really saying is the fact that, yes, we are – we are trading with a country that not only has goods that we want but also is buying most of our debt. So, you know, are we not going to trade with China? What happens if China cuts us off and won’t buy our debt anymore? Where are we going to get the money from that we need in order to finance our national debt? Yes, we are dependent on a country that does have a totalitarian leadership, which is considered a characteristic of communism, one characteristic, but it also runs under the capitalist banner.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as Kyle’s second point, too, there are indeed socialistic policies that the United States of America already has, aren’t there?

PENNER: Oh, absolutely, this is true. I mean, get ready for this, Maureen. We have the U.S. Postal Service, we have Medicare, we have the public school system, we have public universities. I mean, in a way this is a nationalization, if you will, or a way of taking a resource, our education system, our money system, and making it available to all in a kind of an equal way. It was equal, not equal so much anymore.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Tami is calling from Poway. Good morning, Tami. Welcome to These Days.

TAMI (Caller, Poway): Good morning. All I wanted to say was that one of the things that bothers me about the arguments between socialism and capitalism is the all or nothing approach. Either we’re going to be all socialists and we’re going to go down the tubes, or capitalism and, you know, only the rich are going to get richer and the rest of us are going to suffer as a result for it. And why does it have to be that way? That’s like you just – the comment you just made that we already have parts of our society that are geared towards more socialistic kind of ideals. Healthcare really seems like it’s the only other thing on the plate right now that we’re talking about so I don’t know where all the other socialist commentary is coming from, from the conservative side. I’ll take any other comments off the air. Thank you.

PENNER: Well, I’m not going to defend the other side. I’m not even going to defend this side. But I am going to say that in terms of socialism, you know, there’s a lot to be learned from countries in Europe. Scandinavia, for example, and Finland, Norway, Denmark, poverty has almost been eliminated. Those are all socialist countries. All people have healthcare there, as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free. And there’s a lot of political participation, high voter turnouts, so, you know, perhaps there is something to be learned from countries that might be considered more egalitarian than the United States in terms of the distribution of wealth.

CAVANAUGH: Isn’t a lot of this new fear or talk about socialist agendas, doesn’t that stem from the healthcare debate, though?

PENNER: It is. Some of the biggest questions in President Obama’s push for healthcare reform are over the creation of a public option to compete with private companies in the health insurance marketplace. And whatever the phrase public option suggests to you when you hear it, the president said that he has not yet defined what public option is. People see public option as a nationalization of the healthcare delivery system, those people who are concerned about socialism in the country. Others see it as a single payer where you have government totally in charge doing – paying all the bills and calling all the shots. Obama told the American Medical Association in Chicago that it’s not about socialized medicine and government takeovers and long lines and rationed care and decisions made by bureaucrats and not doctors. What it is, is to give people truly an option, a form of health insurance that would be another offering in the whole plan, that it would give people an opportunity for one-stop shopping for a healthcare plan, and the idea is that it would compete with the private plans. So this is not socialism.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Dave is calling in Sorrento Valley. Good morning, Dave. Welcome to These Days.

DAVE (Caller, Sorrento Valley): Hi, good morning. Thanks for having me on…


DAVE: …the program.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

DAVE: I just wanted to say a couple of points and I’ll take my call off the air. Isn’t – I mean, isn’t this really, this socialism stance, isn’t it just – let’s face it, isn’t it just a fear tactic by Republicans? It’s like Republican 101 here. I mean, they’re just like McCarthyism as in the – in the fifties, excuse me. You know, interestingly, their (audio dropout) offer no solutions. They just spout out that everything is socialism to scare everyone. And then lastly, these – this socialism tactic, it’s just – it’s protectionism for these insurance companies who win in the end when everyone gets scared and says, oh, my God, we’re going to be national. Everything’s going to be nationalized. So, I’ll take my call off the air. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

PENNER: Well, thank you very much for your call. I was thinking, as you were speaking, that perhaps the most dramatic example of this fear tactic was the president’s speech to a school in Virginia in September that was broadcast to public schools across the nation. Now his focus was personal responsibility, the importance of a good education to future success and prosperity. In other words, he was saying stay in school for the benefit of yourself and your country. Well, that sounded like, you know, good sound advice to our nation’s school children. It’s similar to a message that was given by former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, however, to the skeptical conservative, President Obama’s speech was nothing short of indoctrination, a shameless attempt to brainwash innocent kids into subscribing to the socialist agenda of the Democratic Party. Here’s one objection that I read about it. It came from an engineer in Texas. He said, the thing that concerned me most about it was it seemed like a direct channel from the President of the United States into the classroom to my child. I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement. So there you have it. You’re right. It’s fear factor.

CAVANAUGH: Now there are genuine socialists involved in American politics. There’s the Democratic Socialists of America Party and there’s Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a self-described socialist. Do the real socialists think President Barack Obama is a socialist?

PENNER: Well, I would say no. I think that those people who have come forth to actually address that question directly like the national director of Democratic Socialists of America, the DSA, and the United States’ largest socialist organization, they say Obama and his administration are not socialist. And they say they ought to know because they’re the socialists. He – They say it’s just like the New Deal era Roosevelt-haters, Republicans who erroneously term a president who’s trying to save capitalism from itself, which is what Obama appears to be doing or trying to do at this time, as socialist. And, you know, they never really – the people who criticize him, they don’t really define socialism. To some, it’s an expansion in government spending. In the past, I’ve heard Fox TV host Glenn Beck say that Canada must be a socialist country because it had a universal healthcare system. Well, you know, that would be news to Canada’s socialist New Democratic Party which has occasionally held power at the provincial level, the level of the provinces but has never won a federal election.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Steve is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, Steve, and welcome to These Days. Steve, are you there? Okay. Well, I’m wondering, has the Obama administration responded in any way to the charges that it has a socialist agenda?

PENNER: Not really. I mean, he, of course, has said very clearly this is – we’re not socialists, this is not a socialist agenda. During his campaign, I remember one video that I saw, Maureen, I think you actually pointed it out to me, when he was on the campaign trail and he was talking about spreading the wealth and I think he said the only wealth that I’ve seen spread was my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When I was in school, I would share that. I think at this point that Obama is staying on message, that he said that, for example, the United States was closer than ever to a healthcare overhaul and up until recently when he’s had a focus on Afghanistan, that’s really been his focus. When he spoke at a rally recently in Minneapolis, he basically said that his chief domestic priority is that healthcare and he wasn’t going to be diverted by the charges of socialism. I wanted to say something a little bit about Sanders, who’s really an interesting guy.

CAVANAUGH: Bernie Sanders…

PENNER: Bernie Sanders.

CAVANAUGH: …from Vermont.

PENNER: Yeah. He…

CAVANAUGH: The senator.

PENNER: He is the first socialist Senator ever to be elected. Now he ran as an independent but he is definitely a socialist and he won 65% of the vote in Vermont, easily beating his Republican opponent. And, you know, it’s interesting to see that. I don’t think anybody would say that the United States Senate now has been infiltrated by the socialists nor would I say that Vermont is a socialist state but, definitely, we now have a socialist in the U.S. Senate.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Shane is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Shane. Welcome to These Days.

SHANE (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning. I just had a brief point that I wanted to make. I think those that are stirring up fear about government bureaucrats deciding our healthcare are being disingenuine (sic) especially when they fail to mention the executive bureaucrats that are currently denying coverage for the motive of profit.


CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Shane.

PENNER: Do we have time? Because I think this is really interesting. You know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was very often termed a socialist and, indeed, before he died, he did have a second Bill of Rights that he wanted to see the congress pass. Unfortunately, or for those who were opposed to it, fortunately, he didn’t see it through. But just to give you an idea of what it had, I mean, this sounds like a socialist agenda: the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation. A right to work. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation. All right, you take the many, many, many people in this country that are now suffering economic hardship, they have that right but they really don’t. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return that will give him and his family a decent living. The right of every family to a decent home. And this one, I’m going to read: the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health, and the right to a good education.

CAVANAUGH: That was from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

PENNER: The Second Bill of Rights, which never got through the congress because it was on its way and then Nixon appointed four members to the Supreme Court and the most conservative of them, William Rehnquist began to dismantle the pro rights decisions of the court’s previous 30 years.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ll have to leave it there and – but people can follow this on your blog.

PENNER: Yes, I’m going to write the blog this afternoon and, hopefully, it will be up by tomorrow morning, and I would love to have you come and visit me at Political Fix at

CAVANAUGH: And there were a lot of people who wanted to join the conversation. We just ran out of time. And you can always go online at and post your comment. I want to thank you, Gloria, so much for talking with us.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. Stay with us as These Days continues in just a few moments here on KPBS.

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