Monday, April 12, 2010

You Say Tomato, I Say...

Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul thinks there's a distinction to be made between a socialist, which he thinks President Obama is not, and a corporatist, which he says he is. But I'm not so sure Paul knows what corporatism is as he then identifies it with support for business corporations. Perhaps he's kidding. Actually, corporatism has nothing to do with supporting business and, in fact, is in many ways exactly the opposite.

No matter, because whether in a strict academic sense Obama is a socialist or a corporatist is not ultimately important. The only meaningful distinction here, and the abiding political tension, is between the liberty of the individual and the prerogatives of the state. That distinction is never perfect and any thinking person will find himself, under different circumstances, at one time more supportive of the one than of the other of the two defining poles. But simply because the distinction is not perfect does not make it meaningless.

If in the main you tend to worry more over the protection of individual liberty, whatever the costs to efficient government or social justice, than you do over state solutions to social ills, again, whatever the attendant costs to freedom, then you are safely within the confines of the main currents of the founding American political tradition. If you fret less about that, or not at all, then you are outside that tradition, plain and simple.

Notice that I've said nothing about whether or not that tradition is good or bad, better or worse. Not surprisingly, throughout our political history there has always existed a critique of it. Consistent with the perennial tension I described above, champions of the critique were generally more sympathetic to state solutions than they were concerned over threats to individual liberty. But as alive as the critique always was, it really only found purchase in the twentieth century. And over the course of that century, for a host of reasons, that which we somewhat ironically call liberalism gave voice to the critique, while at the same time the Democrat Party came to represent it.

So, is President Obama a socialist or a corporatist? In my estimation, the answer is an unqualified...yes. He's also, and this is not debatable, a liberal Democrat. Each and all of those labels place him at the beginning of the twenty-first century firmly outside the founding tradition and, what's more, a threat to it. Now that is a meaningful distinction. The question is, does it matter to you?

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