Jon Meacham: America's Socialist Shift

When Evan Thomas and I started talking about the idea that America has quite recently—and quite quickly—moved closer to Europe in terms of the relationship between the state and the market, we were skeptical. We are Americans, after all; only five years ago, John Kerry was damaged politically by the impression that he seemed "too French." We are a historically center-right country, too; in terms of culture and mandated social programs, America tends to be more conservative than liberal. Then Evan raised a personal connection to the whole question, recalling the electoral fate of his grandfather, Norman Thomas, a perennial presidential candidate. "He found out the hard way that we aren't socialists," he said. "The best he ever did was to lose to FDR 25 to 1."

But the more we spoke and the more we looked at the data, the more merit we found in the point: without a great deal of fanfare, the America of 2009 has become a more socialist country—and the shift began not under a Democrat but a Republican. (And by socialist, we mean modern-day Europe, not the old Soviet system.) As Michael Freedman notes in this week's cover, Harvard economist Ken Rogoff predicts the United States will move toward "a more centralized, redistributional health-care system, as Europe already has," with a greater emphasis on the environment, higher regulation and increased protectionism. Rogoff's conclusion: "I take the 2008 U.S. elections as marking a turn toward continental Europe." Put more precisely, perhaps, the autumn of 2008 marks that possible turn, for the trend began under President Bush, not President Obama.

In his last White House press conference—I commend the YouTube version to you; it is 47 minutes of revealing history—George W. Bush said: "I readily concede I chucked aside some of my free-market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression. So I've told some of my friends who've said—you know, who have taken an ideological position on this issue, you know, 'Why'd you do what you did?' I said, 'Well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act too,' which I did."

Our thinking in raising the issue of the government's expanding economic role is straightforward. The familiar dichotomies of the past—what Evan and I call the Great Society vs. the Gipper, or socialism vs. capitalism—fail to do justice to the complexities of the moment. In the same way Jefferson said "we are all federalists, we are all republicans" in his first inaugural, we are all part of a very mixed economy in which government's role is likely to grow, not slow, for the foreseeable future. Neither blind optimism about our prospects in such a world nor reflexive hostility to the trend is particularly helpful. Accepting the reality of the moment and then thinking clearly about it seems the most sensible course.

There are also essays on the economy and Obama from Fareed Zakaria, Jacob Weisberg, Howard Fineman, Zachary Karabell, Robert J. Samuelson and Jerry Adler. Daniel Gross dissents from Freedman's argument, writing: "Those who fret about an era of slow socialism presume that our government is incapable of learning from mistakes and crafting intelligent policies. The prospect of an enhanced safety net wasn't incompatible with growth in the 1930s and 1960s, and it isn't now. And today, state ownership and control of private enterprise is a temporary last resort, not an enduring governing strategy." But the numbers are trending in a decidedly French direction, and history tells us that it is far easier to create benefits than it is to take them away, salary caps or no salary caps.

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