Is Obama a Socialist? In 2012, Millions Went to the Dictionary to Find Out

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Socialist President

On Monday night, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News, where she told Sean Hannity that "Barack Obama is a socialist. He believes in socialism."

Palin's statement wasn't especially surprising; it's hardly the first time she's said that the president was a socialist, and she wasn't the first person to make the claim. For much of the past four years, critics from John McCain to Dick Morris to Rush Limbaugh have tried to tack the s-word on the President, claiming that Obamacare, the CARD Act, the Wall Street bailout and the fight over tax increases were all examples of creeping socialism.

Another thing that isn't particularly surprising: According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the two most looked-up words of 2012 were "socialism" and "capitalism," followed closely by a few other politically-charged terms: "democracy," "marriage" and "bigotry." For that matter, a few other terms seem to have migrated from the Washington circus to the dictionary's version of America's Top 40. Shortly after the vice presidential debate, "malarkey" managed to make the chart; since then, words like "bourgeois," "hypocrite," "insidious," "integrity" and "proselytize" have also made it onto the list of most-referenced terms.

Sounds like somebody's been watching C-Span.

The general public's confusion about the definitions of socialism and democracy is understandable; for the past few years, an army of befuddled commentators have tried to figure out what the President's critics mean when they call him a socialist. In July, Milos Forman, a director who grew up in a Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, offered an explanation in The New York Times:

I'm not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was. It was not -- as Mr. Obama's detractors suggest -- merely a government so centralized and bloated that it hobbled private enterprise: it was a spoils system that killed off everything, all in the name of "social justice."

Part of the problem, Forman argued, was that the president's critics confuse European-style social democracies, whose benign policies guarantee a fairly comprehensive social safety net, with brutal, Soviet-style totalitarianism.

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Perhaps the best judge of Obama's alleged socialism would be a real, honest-to-Pete socialist. In 2009, Billy Wharton, editor of The Socialist magazine, rose to the task, stating that "Not only is [Obama] not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal." To explain why the president was, in his words, a "hedge-fund democrat," Wharton cited Obama's refusal to structurally change the financial system, his refusal to institute single-payer health care, and his aggressive foreign policies -- all of which would be grounds for kicking him out of the socialist club.

According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is "Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods." Alternate definitions include a "society or group living in which there is no private property," and "a system ... in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state."

Claims of "wealth redistribution" and "class warfare" aside, it's worth noting that Obama's much-attacked health care plan is based around private enterprise -- not around government control of the means of production. It uses private insurers and private hospitals to handle the flow of medical care (and, not incidentally, those private institutions will reap a large share of the profits that are generated by a more widely-insured populace). For that matter, his proposed top income tax rate -- 39.5% on the highest income bracket -- is a fraction of Richard Nixon's top rate of 70% or Dwight Eisenhower's 92% rate.

To cite a few of Merriam Webster's top 25 terms from the last few days, the attacks on the president, while pragmatic (4) and dogmatic (12), are perhaps less than productive. Although it may be too much to ask for comradery (13) in Washington, a little more integrity (19) would not be out of place. For that matter, is it too much to ask that Obama's critics jettison "socialism" (14) in favor of a more accurate term?

Touche! (3)

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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