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Progressive? Socialist? Just different denominations in the Church of the Left

Posted on August 7 2009 7:11 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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Lou Dobbs 'round the clock-thumb

So “progressive” media watchdog group Media Matters decided to take a shot at CNN’s Lou Dobbs for his interpretation of Barack Obama and congressional Democrats‘ policies:

CNN’s Lou Dobbs has touted himself as politically “independent,” and CNN president Jonathan Klein has reportedly referred to Dobbs’ CNN show as “a relatively straight newscast.” But echoing others in the conservative media, Dobbs has repeatedly used his radio and CNN programs to attack President Obama and other progressives, claiming or suggesting that they or their policies are “socialist,” “fascist” or “un-American.”

The main thing that Media Matters is ticked about is that Dobbs is calling President Obama “socialist.” They argue that in doing so he’s revealing himself as a Movement Conservative instead of the independent populist most political observers have long clearly identified him as. They would rather he — and all others — refer to Obama, the Democrats and all others on their side as “progressives” and not “socialists.”

Well… what’s the difference exactly? It just so happens that I asked one of my “progressive” friends this question a few weeks ago when he objected to my description of Mother Jones as a socialist publication in one of my NewsReal posts about “progressive” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.


Pat, my Ralph Nader-voting friend, commented when my blog imported onto my Facebook page:

And what’s with calling Mother Jones a socialist magazine? I’d say it’s “smart fearless journalism” with a progressive tilt as their slogan suggests. There’s quite a difference between progressivism and socialism.

This is like calling the Weekly Standard or Wall Street Journal editorial page fascist.

I know from reading a book on the legendary union organizer that Mother Mary Jones, herself, was a loosely-affiliated socialist, but there’s little indication the magazine is.

This seemed like a good opportunity for dialogue so I pressed Pat further:

How would you describe the difference between “progressivism” and “socialism”?

Is “Single-Payer” health care — of which you’re a vocal advocate — “progressive,” “socialist,” neither, or both?

Because to me the difference between “progressive” and “socialist” is like the difference between “Presbyterian” and “Methodist.” Sure there are differences but how significant are they?

Pat responded:

Single-Payer might be looked at as socialized medicine, but some things are done better when provided as a public service (military, Medicare, libraries, etc.) – some things are better socialized.

Those who advocate socialism want the government to run everything. Progressives don’t — we just want there to be adequate checks & balances in place on big business, we advocate for strong unions, regulated commerce, etc. and want everyone to be able to have an opportunity to reach for the American Dream.

I remember back in my leftist days, one of the things that always annoyed me when I read David Horowitz’s books was the way that he referred to “the Left.” I countered him by pointing out that within “the Left” there was a wide variety of viewpoints and to just say “the Left” was a gross oversimplification. And then I read a bit more and thought a bit more and gradually came to understand just why it’s acceptable to refer to “the Left” as one entity. (Simply: it’s not the differences between leftists but the ideas they have in common.)

The more I ponder on it, the more I think the metaphor I came up with in my dialogue with Pat holds. Building off of the characterization of the Left as a religious movement, when one says “the Left” think of it as though one were saying “Christianity.” Within Christianity there are a whole host of schools of thought. You’ve got your Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Mormons, etc. And these people have pretty clear disagreements. But we can still say “Christian” because of what they have in common.

So think of “progressive” and “socialist”as two different denominations within the religion of the Left. And when talking with a leftist or debating his political plans perhaps it’s best to consider carefully which denomination they fall into when you critique them. Otherwise you’ll sound like someone attacking a Baptist by calling them a Catholic.

And I don’t think that Lou Dobbs is really doing that very well when he attacks Obama and many of the Democrats as “socialists.” It’s just not their denomination within the Left. (Try telling Pat that Obama’s a “socialist” and he’ll cackle and howl. In Pat’s words Obama is a “corporatist sell-out.”)

As amusing as the “Obama Joker” image and “Why So Socialist” meme have been, I really question their utility. How effective is it to call Obama a socialist? Is that really going to persuade the vital center and win the fight on health care freedom?

So how about another strategy? Right now conservatives seem so focused on whether Obamacare is proper, ethical, or morally right. And conservatives seem to do this a lot — they go after a program or an idea because it’s morally wrong. Frankly, I think this argument can be bypassed altogether most of the time. Forget the philosophical debate of whether the US government should do something and instead focus on whether it can do something. Approach the issue in a pragmatic fashion. Specifically: we don’t have the money to implement a public health care option.

Further: even if we did, a “public option” probably wouldn’t reduce the number of uninsured that drastically. (The Left’s prescriptions are rarely effective treatments.) I’ve known too many people who actually have jobs that offer health insurance but choose not to take it because they don’t want to pay for it. I have little faith that very many uninsured people would shell out the $150 or so a month to pay for the government plan. Maybe that’s an argument that might resonate more than Dobbs thundering about socialism.

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