OPINION: Back when a socialist was a socialist

During the vice-presidential debate of 1988, Republican nominee Dan Quayle attempted to draw a parallel between himself and John F. Kennedy. Quayle's Democratic opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, who had served with Kennedy in the Senate, looked Quayle in the eye and said, evenly, 'Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!'

When Republicans singled out Barack Obama's income-tax proposal and labeled him a socialist during the recent presidential campaign, one astute commentator saw the fallacy in that charge. Referring to Eugene Debs, a founder of the Socialist Party of America more than a century ago, he said: 'I know Gene Debs and Barack Obama. [Obama] is no Gene Debs.'

Without the leadership of Debs and, later, Norman Thomas, the socialist movement fell on hard times after World War II. That allowed Republicans to distort the image of socialism in their effort to scare the wits out of the public. Americans have been brainwashed for half a century with the notion that American 'socialism' can be equated with the Soviet Union, Stalin, the Cold War, atomic spies, and almost any other evil. In the 2008 presidential contest, the progressive income tax became that evil.

Republicans need to tell us what they mean by this mysterious, fearsome 'socialism.' It's certainly not the socialism of Debs they have in mind. Furthermore, Obama and his supporters accepted the charge of 'socialism' as legitimate, implying that socialism itself is suspect, but it is inaccurate to use that charge against Obama. After all, he's not a socialist but a firm believer in capitalism and the free market.

To substantiate their accusations, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich and other Republicans have picked a legitimate issue which has nothing to do with socialism and pounced on it as evidence of Obama's radicalism. That issue is the progressive income tax.

Whenever McCain or Palin talked about Obama's tax plan, they denounced it as 'share the wealth' or 'redistributing income.' Obama's plan, however, is to impose progressively higher income tax rates on those affluent Americans with substantially greater incomes than the vast majority of taxpayers. This is an idea that for over 100 years has been supported by the brightest minds of Democrats and Republicans.

While Debs and Thomas aggressively supported a progressive income tax, it was not socialists who pushed the tax through. That occurred during a Republican administration, 1909-13, as the Sixteenth Amendment. In a bipartisan effort, both major parties supported levying an income tax. In its initial form, the tax fell solely on those with higher incomes, not on most working Americans. It wasn't until years later that ordinary Americans paid the tax.

Warren Buffett, the nation's most respected capitalist, has on many occasions condemned the current unjust tax law, which favors the wealthy. He has offered a large sum of money to those on the Forbes list of leading executives who can prove that their receptionists pay a lower tax rate than they do. No one has collected. In calling for a just progressive tax, Buffett claims that he pays about 17 percent of his total income, while his secretary pays nearly twice that much. Does protesting this make Buffett a socialist?

The reason for Buffett's advantage is the capital gains tax breaks which have been written into the code since its original enactment. Capital gains taxes are applied only to investment income, not to wages.

These tax breaks are drawn up in a tax code that runs volume after volume. It needs to be that long in order to get all those tax benefits into the law. The tax breaks aren't for ordinary Americans. They are, in fact, a good example in reverse of the 'redistribution of wealth' tax system that McCain attempted to pin on Obama during the campaign.

Tax breaks for the wealthy truly do redistribute income. They promote sharing wealth with those who don't need it because they already have so much. And 47 percent of American voters swallowed McCain's claim that even a modest increase in taxes on the wealthy was a radical socialist idea!

Socialists still support the concept of a progressive income tax, but that view is also held by progressive-minded Republicans and Democrats such as Warren Buffett and Barack Obama, who would never associate themselves with socialism.

Most Americans have never heard of Eugene Debs, but they know a hoax when they hear one.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University. This article was distributed by the History News Service.