Notes from the Heartland
In Denver tomorrow, the first presidential debate will see the candidates discuss the role of government in the economy. Some Republican commentators argue that Barack Obama’s healthcare and tax policies make him a “socialist”. About half of Americans believe the term “socialist” applies well or very well to Barack Obama.
In the primaries Mitt Romney admirably declined to play this game. Obama may be a “big government liberal” (a phrase oxymoronic to British observers) but he isn’t a socialist. But don’t take Romney’s word for it. The US branch of the Workers International League agrees with him.
There aren’t many Marxists in Missouri, where I am reporting from, but within three hours of arriving in the state, I met two. Bradley Rodrick and David May had set up stall near Washington University in St Louis, with neatly arranged paraphernalia and pamphlets. I figured if anyone knew whether Obama is a socialist, they would.
“Of course not,” May explained. “Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent the working class.” Both parties are against organised labour, he said, citing as evidence the recent stand-off between Chicago teachers and Rahm Emannuel, the city’s mayor and Obama’s former chief of staff.
America faces an economic crisis, May adds. “So much money has been thrown at the banks but without much result. Corporations have trillions of dollars of cash on their balance sheets. Median income growth has stagnated. Both parties are dependent upon millionaires for political donations.”
Each of these views warrants qualification but they are hardly the preserve of the 100 Marxists in the Midwest who turned up for the IWL’s most recent meeting. There are many reasons why the US left has never really taken off. Capitalism has done America quite nicely, thank you. And another revolution is a hard sell in a country that sprung from the most successful one in history. But another reason may be that some of its views aren’t so extreme after all.
Only in America, it seems, are the socialists not even really socialists. Rodrick was a Republican in high school and an Obama volunteer in 2008. “I moved left and never stopped.” He became disillusioned when looking at “the administration’s list of achievements” it used in the 2010 mid-terms. “I wasn’t inspired by the START treaty and an extension of the Bush tax cuts, so I started reading Marx and Lenin.”
May, aged 30 and “a few years” older than Rodrick, also has a personal conversion story. His father was a machinist whose company was bought by Siemens, who he says turned his father’s job into a peripatetic part-time role. “I was 16 and this was in the wake of NAFTA and everyone was telling me that free trade made sense.”
About a year ago, it was far from fanciful to think that the American left’s frustration with the country, as expressed in the Occupy protests, would affect Obama’s electoral strategy and perhaps his success, too. He could have been dragged to the extreme of his party, in a similar if less pronounced way as the Tea Party-influenced Republicans. Rodrick and May were part of Occupy St Louis. Twelve months later, “there is a lot of apathy”, Rodrick says. As he prepares answers to some variation of the question “are you a socialist?”, Obama can probably be thankful that he won’t upset many people if he responds: “Of course not, I’m an American.”
John McDermott, the FT’s comment editor, is on a three-week tour of the US ahead of the November 6 election.