With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on a trajectory to win the Democratic nomination for president, socialism is the talk of the nation. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has proposed big reforms, including universal healthcare, tuition-free college, and more than doubling the federal minimum wage. His ascent has the Democratic establishment and corporate pundits concerned. What the media doesn’t acknowledge is that socialism is everywhere in America already. And whether they realize it or not, Americans like it.
In American politics, socialism has a broad definition. Essentially, anything that taxpayers fund and government administers is socialism, from food stamps to oil subsidies. This differs radically from the Marxist conception, but it’s been used in America since at least the 1930s. Corporate interests attacked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal proposals as socialist. Among Roosevelt’s New Deal accomplishments were bringing electric power to rural areas and establishing Social Security. Roosevelt became one of America’s most popular presidents and was elected four times.
New Deal programs became so essential to American life that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower wrote, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” President Harry Truman said, “Socialism is a scare word that [special interest lobbies] have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years… Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all people.”
Truman proposed a version of Medicare-for-All as early as 1945. Eisenhower expanded Social Security and kept the top income tax bracket at 91 percent. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t seem very radical to these former golden age presidents at all. Many of Sanders’s policies have been proposed before and most of them exist, in some form or another, in the world’s other major industrialized countries, including Canada, Germany, and Japan.
Socialism surrounds American life to this day. Libraries, public schools, public parks, fire departments, police departments, public utilities, municipal garbage pickup, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, disability protection, labor rights, unemployment insurance, airports, bridges, roads, sewer systems, child protective services, the FDIC, environmental protections, and water treatment plants are all socialist success stories. Wherever a corporation can’t squeeze out a profit, socialist government is there to pool community resources and deliver a public necessity.
Americans don’t hate socialist programs; they just hate the word. Socialism still divides Americans in polling, but socialist programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security remain very popular. There is, perhaps, no clearer illustration of this miseducated dichotomy than the protesters who, during the Obamacare debates of 2009, demanded the government keep its hands off of their Medicare.
Dissemination of far-right propaganda on talk radio, FOX News, and the internet has been stunningly successful at turning Americans against their own best interests. Ronald Reagan, who effectively ended the New Deal era, famously said the nine scariest words were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Among the modern Republican Party’s greatest enemies have been city workers, schoolteachers, and firefighters’ unions. Public service itself is often dismissed as socialist and un-American. It’s difficult to grasp the depth of hatred for your nation and your neighbors such an attitude reveals.
It is no small irony that those most ardently opposed to “socialism” are also frequently the most enthusiastic about the military. During World War II, the US military expanded into the largest state project in human history, and it has remained so ever since. Propped up by trillions of taxpayer dollars, that massive public investment has produced and perfected innovations like GPS, jet engines, microwaves, and the internet. When a politician asks for a bigger military budget, very few pundits question it.
Unfortunately, Americans don’t have the same attitude when it comes to protecting themselves from other threats. Poverty, illiteracy, and sickness have done far more damage than every terror attack combined. President Trump isn’t accused of socialism when he requests $2.5 billion to fight an emergency like coronavirus, but securing the long-term health and prosperity of Americans through sustained public investments is considered too radical.
Pundits frequently worry about Sanders’s socialism morphing into authoritarianism. MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews became nearly hysterical that a socialist administration might execute him in Central Park. Such fears are plainly absurd. Sanders has denounced authoritarianism. The left-wing movement that backs him opposes it and pushes actively for less authoritarian police and criminal justice reforms. Nothing Sanders has proposed would look out of place in Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, or even New Deal-era America.
A strong society invests in the health, education, and welfare of its people. Most Americans have no problem publicly funding the first 12 years of their children’s education. Tuition-free colleges merely extend that to the next four years, enabling American kids to keep pace with the global economy. Americans believe in containing pandemics and protecting the health of their communities. The best way to do so is to ensure everyone has access to care. These are investments, not handouts.
Socialism helped to civilize America. Before socialist intervention, laborers were brutally exploited, polluters went unchecked, the elderly were left behind, and children grew up illiterate. Now, we are again in need of socialist reform. Billionaires pay starvation wages, students are forced into crippling debt, and life-saving healthcare is gated off by insurance companies. That cruel, greedy, inhuman system is far more extreme than anything proposed by Bernie Sanders. Placing people before profit, by socialism or any other name, is the way forward for America.