In Kansas City last week, John McCain said Barack Obama had the “most extreme” Senate voting record, I guess referring to National Journal’s annual rating of voting records during the previous year, which found Obama the most liberal senator based on 99 key votes. (Of course, since someone — Sen. Jim DeMint — was also ranked most conservative, it could be argued both Obama and DeMint registered as equally “extreme”.) After the event, McCain was asked if he thought Obama was an extremist. He replied, “His voting record…is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.” Pressed on whether he thinks Obama is a socialist, McCain replied, “I don’t know. All I know is his voting record, and that’s what people usually judge their elected representatives by.” The Obama camp took this as an insult, issuing a statement saying in part that McCain was issuing “the same old tired political attacks that the American people are sick of.”
But what’s wrong with calling someone a socialist? It is not — or at least should not be — a dirty word. The “same old tired” politics is really the castigation of entire groups because of reasonable but minority philosophical stances. Liberals were so cowed by attacks on their proud tradition that they rebranded themselves “progressives”. Before 1978 or so, “conservative” was deemed a slander.
During an appearance on The Colbert Report earlier this year, George Will summed up the philosophical divide in American politics quite elegantly: “Conservatives tend to favor freedom and are willing to accept inequalities of outcome from the free market, liberals are for equality of outcome and are willing to sacrifice and circumscribe freedom in order to get it.” While Will defended his stance as a proponent of the conservative view, he did not trash-talk the liberal view. His simple summary makes great sense. If one believes freedom to be paramount, inequality is a necessary side-effect, as the government will not be intervening to boost some and hold others back. If one believes equality to be most important, restrictions on personal activity are required to keep those with certain advantages in check.
I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak years ago, when I was still in college, and at one point he thundered, “‘Socialist’ is not a dirty word!” While Vonnegut’s democratic socialism was hardly a secret, I’ve always thought it odd, coming from the author of “Harrison Bergeron“, probably the best cautionary tale of regulation with the goal of absolute equality ever written. I, of course, am not a socialist, though I once was, and I agree that “socialist” is not a dirty word. We need to get beyond such simplistic attacks in order to have an honest debate about the merits of freedom versus forced equality.