Historically, social justice has meant different things to different people, and equally so today, where the term remains as frustratingly elusive as ever. Like the very progressives that champion the term, the definition seems to evolve based on progressives’ ever-evolving purposes.
Most exasperating is that many who speak the language of social justice really mean “economic justice.” Unlike traditional practitioners of social justice, whose occasional noble interests ranged from prison reform to child-labor laws, many modern practitioners seek wealth redistribution, “living wages,” progressive income taxes, and an eternally-widening net of federal government power and central planning; they are inclined to class interests rather than human rights. And, by their estimate, achieving economic justice requires collectivism. They invoke social justice not to try to resolve conventional social differences as much as class/income differences.
This is why, in many modern eyes, including those of the much-maligned Glenn Beck, mention of “social justice” seems a red flag for socialism.
In truth, many of those who mouth the language of “social justice” have long meant “economic justice.” As a matter of plain, undeniable historical fact, American communists have cynically employed this tactic for decades, since at least the launching of Communist Party USA in the 1920s. They have talked “social justice” because they know it appeals to the naïve, particularly to trusting, gullible liberal Christians. It’s a quite excellent duping mechanism to hoodwink non-communist/non-socialist liberals.
Of course, every now and then, some of those on the far left slip up and blurt out the words “economic justice.” And it’s indeed a “slip up,” especially for a politician. By and large, you can’t think that way—or, more accurately, talk that way—and get elected in America. Politicians who privately view the world according to contours of economic justice must publicly avoid such Marxist-socialistic rhetoric while running for office—running, that is, as mainstream Democrats.
That’s a somewhat long way of getting to a dramatic case in point: the current president of the United States of America, the man in charge of the most prosperous free-market system in history.
Speaking in January 2001, when he couldn’t conceive that the typical American would elect to the presidency someone with views as far to the left as his own, Barack Obama gave an interview to the Chicago Public Radio station, WBEZ, 91.5 FM. There, only a few years before he pursued a successful bid to lead the greatest free-market powerhouse in human history, Obama used the words “economic justice” and “redistributive change.” (Click here to listen and here for transcript.)
It was a remarkably revealing interview for a would-be president. Speaking of the super-liberal Warren Court, infamous for its unparalleled judicial activism, Obama lamented: “[A]s radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical.” No, in Obama’s view, the Warren Court had not been radical enough. Why? Because, averred Obama, it hadn’t “ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice.”
The implications of that assessment are staggering. Obama spoke the heart of a true believer. It was a refreshingly candid moment, breathtaking from a politician able to rise so high and so fast in a country like America, anchored in economic freedom.
Politically, the young Obama was sloppy. He wasn’t yet savvy enough to cloak his “economic justice” language in the more palatable jargon of “social justice.” Today, Obama knows better, slipping only rarely, as he did to “Joe the Plumber” in 2008.
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that everyone who mutters “social justice” means “economic justice,” or socialism. It’s crucial to understand that. Often, however, that’s indeed the case, as the far left has co-opted these buzzwords to dupe fellow travelers on the soft left.
As for liberal Christians angry at being accused of socialism when they speak of social justice … they often have themselves to blame; it is they who have bedded down (usually unwittingly) with the socialists, the collectivists, and the central planners, allowing them to hijack their language. It is they who have been duped again and again.
Too bad. The redistributionist left has perverted and appropriated respectable language. And, thanks to concealed intentions—this has been happening for 100 years now—we must be extra vigilant each time we hear words like “social justice.” We need to probe deeper: What do you really mean by “social justice?” How would that translate into policy? What kind of government control and taxation do you have in mind? Do you really mean “economic justice?”
Alas, America’s crisis continues, made possible by an even larger group of gullible innocents who obliviously elected the very crew that uses them and their language.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."