It’s a claim that’s the right’s all too famous for: President Obama is a socialist. From hammer-and-sickle signs at Tea Party rallies to the volumes of books about the president’s “secret agenda,” conservatives have been sneered and jeered at by the left for this bold assertion from its most reactionary members. But, is it true?
From a definitional standpoint, it’s not even close. Socialism is “a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies,” according to Merriam-Webster. Obama’s policies don’t fit the glove.
Certainly, one could argue that the President’s large-scale government takeover of the healthcare industry through the Affordable Care Act is de facto socialism, but the means of production still belong to individuals through private hospitals, practices, and insurance agencies. While the ACA certainly expanded entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the federal government has played a significant role in the healthcare industry for decades, even throughout Republican presidencies.
Advocates of limited government do themselves a disservice by pinning a label on the president that he does not deserve. Their time would be much better spent studying the more subtle, and arguably more scary philosophy that the president explicitly subscribes to, one that is evident in his policies — progressivism.
President Obama has identified himself as a progressive on several occasions, as Democrats.com proudly point out. “I am someone who is no doubt progressive,” candidate Obama once proudly proclaimed on the 2008 campaign trail in attempt to combat claims that he was moving to the center. However, the progressive label has been used and abused by many pundits and politicians. So, what exactly does it mean?
Progressivism’s roots can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described history as humanity’s development from barbarism to civilization. However, progressivism did not firmly take root in the United States until about a century later, when American Presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt started using the label.
Wilson in particular contributed volumes of work outlining his vision of a progressive government as a Princeton professor. His 1886 essay, “The Study of Administration” provides rare insight into the mindset of a progressive leader, reading almost as if it was written by President Obama more than a century later:
In government, as in virtue, the hardest of things is to make progress. Formerly the reason for this was that the single person who was sovereign was generally either selfish, ignorant, timid, or a fool, — albeit there was now and again one who was wise. Nowadays the reason is that the many, the people, who are sovereign have no single ear which one can approach, and are selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish with the selfishness, the ignorances, the stubbornness, the timidities, or the follies of several thousand persons, — albeit there are hundreds who are wise.
In this passage, Wilson strips the progressive viewpoint down to its fundamental elements. Government does not function merely as an entity to protect individual rights, but rather to “make progress.” The biggest obstacle to society’s progress, ironically, is society itself — “the mean, the people” who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn or foolish.” From this outlook, it is only logical to conclude that the few “who are wise” have the responsibility to push society’s progress forward using the government as a vehicle whether they like it or not.
Indeed, Wilson is quite explicit about this duty later on in the essay, writing that the executive “must persuade [the people] to want the particular change he wants.” This progressive modus operandi of leadership is as alive today in the Obama administration as it was when Wilson first penned it.