The Social Network: French Election Inspires U.S. Left

PHOTO:President-elect Francois Hollande leaves his campaign headquarters in Paris, left, President Barack Obama waves to a crowd before leaving the airport, in Richmond, Va.Remy de la Mauviniere; Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo
President-elect Francois Hollande leaves his campaign headquarters in Paris, left, President Barack Obama waves to a crowd before leaving the airport, in Richmond, Va.

German socialist Werner Sombart wrote in 1906, "For the average American being successful means first and foremost becoming rich."

How many times in the 2012 campaign so far have we heard sound bites borrowing from this line of thought?

Notably, Mitt Romney said: "What a home this is, what grounds these are, the pool, the golf course. You know, if a Democrat were here, he'd look around and say no one should live like this. Republicans come here and say everyone should live like this."

And from President Obama: "We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it."

Sombart's critique came from an essay called "Why is there no Socialism in the United States?"

It was a good question, and still is — especially as France, one of the country's best friends on the world stage, turns to a new socialist president to steer it away from economic ruin.

The attitudes in America and in France could hardly be more different. For the past two years, the Tea Party has redirected the political conversation to focus on less government and less spending in the U.S.

In Paris on Sunday, France's President-Elect Francois Hollande declared in his victory speech that "austerity can no longer be the only option."

Gavin Wright, a Stanford professor of American economic history, has argued, as liberals have during the health care debate, that Americans actually enjoy some socialist programs, like Social Security and Medicare. And he notes that one of the most popular programs in U.S. history, the post-Depression "New Deal," championed by FDR, put the public back to work and helped stem rural poverty.

But what a difference 80 years make.

"It is pretty amazing that you get these pervasive hard times, and instead of appeals to the government to do something about it, we have this — the most active side is the anti-government," Wright said. "It's a challenge to make sense of that."

Obama has called both outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande, and he invited the president-elect to the White House.

As cordial as that meeting might be, and as much as conservatives might try to paint it as a sit-down between two socialists, there is little chance that the socialist movement is gaining enough ground in the United States to be a major force anytime in the near future.

In the United States, negative sentiment surrounding communists and socialists spawned during the McCarthy era all but erased those parties from the modern political scene.

And socialist leaders in the United States say that the system works against them. They say the electoral system forces the public to choose between two main parties that gobble up corporate donations; that powerful unions would rather side with Democrats; and that without a congressional system of proportional representation — in which seats are divvied up based on how many votes candidates get — third parties don't have a fair shot at legislating.

Meanwhile, in countries like France, government services like universal health care have been around for so long that the public deems them basic rights that are part of the socialist system.

There might be one key lesson for American socialists to take away from the French election, and it's a familiar socialist phrase: "unite!"

France's socialists were able to bring together a half-dozen left-wing groups into one coalition with a candidate, Hollande, they could all get behind, and he won. It was close: about 52 percent to 48 percent.

"That was really inspiring for us," said Billy Wharton, co-chairman of Socialist Party USA, one of a handful of socialist groups in the United States.

And for U.S. socialists frustrated by their fractured movement, Occupy Wall Street offers a beacon of hope. The protest movement has claimed the mantle of the masses and demanded socialist-leaning changes from the American bourgeoisie, Obama and Romney alike.

"The conditions in the country are going to force the organizations to come together," Wharton said. "People will demand that there's one voice in the socialist group."

Economists, however, are skeptical. Wright said the socialist movement is hindered by the Constitution itself — a document that helps protect the rich by creating a complicated system of government that generally favors the status quo.

Sombart himself wrote 100 years ago that the American worker "perceives a kind of divine revelation in the Constitution of his country, and consequently he reveres it with devout awe."

"His feelings toward the Constitution are as if it were something holy that is immune from mortal criticism," the German wrote. "This has been rightly spoken of as 'constitutional fetish worship.' "