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  1. Long reads
29 October 2008

Obama and the S Word

Rachael Jolley looks at the fundamental misunderstandings in the US that allow John McCain and Sarah

By Rachael Jolley

In these politically incorrect times across the pond, desperate times call for desperate words, so the Republicans in all their glory have started bandying around accusations of “socialism” against Obama.

The S word throws a bigger, scarier shadow in the US than it does in Europe. Over there it is rather like saying you have hidden a red under the bed, and you think Stalin might be a good man for the next secretary of state.

You have to remember that the Americans are still a bit nostalgic about the Cold War – a moment when at least they knew who their enemies were, and that they were definitely the good guys.

And then there was the 1950s when McCarthy thought anyone who had ever flirted with reading the Communist Manifesto should be kicked out of the country.

All of which means that the definition of the word socialism in the good ole USA hasn’t moved on much from those heady days.

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There is no idea of the Swedish model of democratic socialism say, with its excellent health care, free market economy and highly rated standard of living.

Nope, socialism, is something nasty that sits out in the shadows, waiting to sneak in. All of which leads to horrified Americans in mid western states telling reporters: “I believe socialism is at our back door” when they mean “hell, a Democrat might get into the White House”.

Ironically, heartland blue collar Republicans who fear “socialism” are often the ones that would benefit from a socialised healthcare plan, where doctors were free at the point of use. Not that this is on offer anyway.

One mother quoted in the Sunday Times this weekend said she would hate to see socialist healthcare in the US because her daughter had Down’s syndrome and had to have surgery the day after she was born. The woman seemed to think this would not have happened under a “socialist” healthcare system.

It’s bizarre when you think about it. Does anyone in this country believe that the NHS would not take care of a child with Down’s syndrome, or in France for that matter?

But in the US where no doubt that operation cost thousands of dollars, and where the uninsured and poor would struggle to pay off huge healthcare bills, the poorest in society seem to be vehemently opposed to moving towards a universal healthcare system because they think it would be too socialist.

In an interview with me earlier this year, Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said you just could not use that S word in a political argument in the US and expect to come away the winner.

So no wonder then that a truly desperate McCain will try and pull the scary socialist card out of the bag in the last desperate dog days of his campaign. Call the Democratic candidate a socialist and you might make voters run for cover.

And what is it that Obama is planning that is so socialist? Well, it’s hard to tell: his health plan hardly fits the model; he hasn’t suggested he is going to nationalise any industries or overthrow the system. His tax plan is hardly a red rag either, slightly higher taxes for those earning over $250,000 – blimely he’ll be moving to the Kremlin next.

America’s never going to make that sharp left that some commentators are predicting, frankly because Americans wouldm#t know where to find it. Both parties are to the right of most mainstream western European politicians, whatever their position.

Then perhaps this election will bring to an end the idea that the scariest thing that could ever happen to America is a soupcon of socialism. But then again elephants might fly.

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