'Socialism' becomes an issue in US election

By Barry Sheppard, San Francisco

October 31 — In the final days of the US presidential election campaign, Republican candidate John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin have repeatedly charged that Democrat candidate Barack Obama is a “socialist”. While this assertion is ridiculous, it does bring the issue of socialism into the mainstream of US political discourse.

As a result, there is curiosity about the subject. Many Americans now ask, “Is Obama a socialist?” and “What is socialism?” These and related questions have come up not only in questions by the press to the candidates, but also on radio and TV news programs and internet blogs. Some conservatives have charged President George Bush with “socialism” for his massive bailouts of the Wall Street banks. At the same time as the word “socialism” has appeared, there also have been more references to the words “capitalism” and the “capitalist system”. Bush even defended “democratic capitalism” on national TV. This was a switch from using the vague term “free market” to describe the corporate-dominated capitalist profit system.

The background to all this of course has been the financial crisis and the developing economic recession. Tens of millions of Americans have been profoundly shaken by the crisis. Working people have seen their homes threatened with foreclosure as rents rise while house prices continue to fall, their jobs threatened as layoffs are on the rise, their real wages being cut after stagnating since 1973. The October stock market crash has slashed deep into workers’ pension funds and retirement savings.

In many cities, some neighbourhoods hit hard by foreclosures are largely abandoned, with thieves stripping unoccupied houses of copper wiring to sell. Many homeowners are holding garage sales, scouring their homes for things to sell cheap, while others seek them out to buy necessities. Blacks, Latinos and other oppressed peoples have been hit especially hard, as have the poorer sections of the working class in general.

While working people are being hurt in these and other ways, the sight of the government bailing out super-rich bankers has been a further shock. Suddenly, the “free market” has been discredited. The need for the government to step in has been acknowledged by pundits across the board. Workers meanwhile are wondering when the government will begin to help them as well as the rich. Everyone but the Bush administration now admits that the US is in recession and that it is likely to get much deeper.

Today, the federal government’s commerce department reported that GDP contracted by 0.3% during the July-September quarter. Overall US consumer spending fell in the quarter at an annual 3.1%, its deepest decline since 1980. But most striking was the drop in food spending, which plunged at an annual pace of 8.6%, its fastest decline in 50 years.

The idea that something is wrong with the existing economic system has become widespread, even if people don’t know exactly what. This means that discussion of capitalism and socialism will remain relevant after the November 4 election and the charge that Obama is a socialist recedes. This gives US socialists new opportunities.

A layer of students, whose already very high loans are being threatened, will most likely be the first to be most open to socialist ideas. But now their discussions will be more grounded in the present reality and they will sense that a large section of the general population shares their sense that something is wrong with the system. Socialists themselves will not feel as isolated as even two months ago and will be more confident in seeking out young people. Opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will grow as the US digs itself deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire as both candidates promise, and will dovetail with concern about the economy.

In its desperation to keep the White House in Republican hands, the Republican campaign has sought to appeal to thinly disguised racism against Obama. Thus McCain and Palin give their charge that Obama is a socialist a racist twist. They say that Obama wants to tax “you” in order to “spread the wealth”. The “you” they pitch this appeal to are the same people Hillary Clinton referred to during the Democratic primary campaign as “hard working Americans”, i.e., white workers.

The idea is that Obama is going to tax white workers and use the money to “spread the wealth” to poorer people such as black Americans. Obama’s actual tax plan is to raise some taxes on incomes over $250,000 to the level they were at before Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, that is, at the rates under the Clinton administration. Hardly socialism.