The Myth of Obama Moving to the Left
The line in right-wing media today is that last night’s State of the Union address is a sign that President Obama is moving to “the left.”
The Washington Examiner, for example, is calling Obama’s speech a “leftward lurch.” The Washington Times, meanwhile, says that it shows that the President is embracing a “left-wing” agenda. And over at The Hill, Dick Morris says that we should now expect President Obama to spend the final years of his presidency “selling his new radical left-wing agenda to America.”
There’s no question that many of the policies President Obama unveiled last night in his State of the Union address are without a doubt solid, progressive policies. Free community college, paid sick leave, a minimum wage - these are all bread and butter Democratic issues, and if they were put into place or expanded, our country and our economy would be a lot more prosperous and equal. But they’re not "left-wing" policies. And that language speaks to a bigger problem we have in this country about describing what's "left-wing" or "right-wing."
The left, the real left, is way more radical than President Obama, or anyone in the Democratic Party, for the matter. The real left wants to nationalize industries and redistribute the means of production so that workers control the entire economy. That’s been the case since Karl Marx first published The Communist Manifesto back in 1848, and it’s still the case now. And, just in case you hadn't noticed - the real left is almost totally absent from American political discourse. The last time I had the president of the Communist Party of the United States on my show, they had fewer than a thousand members.
And contrary to what you might hear over at Fox So-Called News, President Obama is not moving in that direction. He does not want to nationalize all industry and he does not want to redistribute all wealth. All he wants to do is tweak around the edges of an out-of-control jungle-capitalism system and put into place changes that will make our economy and body politic a little fairer for working people.
That’s not left-wing, that’s just common sense, and it’s perfectly in line with the main thrust of this country’s political history. It's totally mainstream, and consistently supported by more than half of America - including people of all parties.
From the New Deal until the Reagan Revolution, America has always been a progressive country. Students in many states could go to college for free, there were publicly-owned utilities, the workforce was unionized, and voters - and even presidents - in both political parties largely agreed that the gains of the Roosevelt administration were a good thing. But ever since the Reagan era, American politics has moved drastically to the right, and it’s taken our political discourse with it. Right-wing memes dominate the mainstream media and this makes it almost impossible to talk honestly about what’s really going on when the President calls on Washington to embrace “middle-class economics.”
The truth is that when President Obama says he wants to return to “middle-class economics,” all he’s really doing is trying to take us back to the kind of common sense policies that both parties more or less agreed with until the Reagan Revolution. He’s just an Eisenhower Republican proposing center-right reforms that conservatives in countries like Germany and Sweden would support without even thinking about it.
And what’s really wild is that 59 years ago, “middle-class economics” was the conservative position here in the United States. The 1956 Republican Party platform, for example, called for raising the minimum wage, endorsed equal pay for equal work, supported collective bargaining rights for workers, and even celebrated the GOP’s role in expanding Social Security. Pretty amazing, right?
So to say, as many Republicans are, that President Obama is moving to the left doesn’t just ignore basic ideas about what it means to be right or left-wing, it ignores - or outright lies about - our own history. For much of the 20th century, America was a much more progressive place - at least in terms of how people understand the government’s role in the economy - than it is right now.
The Reagan Revolution changed all this, but now President Obama is moving us ever so slightly back to the centrist progressive vision of government that dominated our politics between 1932 and 1981.
It’s still too soon to tell if this will work, but one thing’s for sure: if we do want to return to the kind of policies that worked so well for so long, we need to call them what they are, and not buy into right-wing memes whose only purpose is to discredit common sense ideas that have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans. The policies Obama called for last night - with the exception of the TPP - are simply expansions of the American Way.