Opinion: Who is a socialist? Part I

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

It is a sure bet that over the next 12 months as the race for president heats up, you will hear the term “socialist” tossed around by some like an accusation of criminal conduct or of a political miscreant. A scare tactic for certain.

Those who hurl this spitball gauge that most Americans are suspicious, even fearful of socialists. It’s a timeworn page out of the playbook of those opposed to social change that might reapportion some of America’s vast wealth to support programs that primarily benefit middle and low income persons at the expense of the richest.

But is that socialism? In reality, socialism is an all-encompassing system in which government controls the economy from production output to prices of goods and the incomes of its citizens. The actual fact of the matter is that no candidate is proposing that, not even Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist running for president.

But in the aggregate, Democratic candidates are offering the American people a plethora of goodies, too many that could ever possibly be enacted all at once. To wit: Medicare For All; an elimination of private insurance; forgiveness of all student loans; free college; pre-K programs for all 3 and 4-year-olds. One Democratic candidate is even proposing to give families $1,000 per month every month to spend as they wish!

Some of these policy ideas have merit and others have less. But few of them have any chance of succeeding, and all of them would come with a big price tag that would need to be paid with higher taxes across the board. But are these candidates proposing socialism to replace American capitalism? The answer is no. The assertion is simply a canard. It is used to distract and to sow fear.

Down through our history, American politicians have been tarred with the label of “socialist” for trying to reform the worst elements of a capitalist system and bring greater equity to large swaths of the American public. This in order to help ordinary citizens not as fortunate as the bygone captains of industry such as Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Mellon. Or the fabulously wealthy modern day wizards of business industries and technology such as Gates, Bloomberg, Bezos or Buffet… to name just a few.

When Theodore Roosevelt campaigned to end corporate monopolies and enact fair work rule protections including child labor laws, he was called a radical socialist by his detractors. When his younger cousin Franklin Roosevelt proposed an array of public work programs and Social Security during the Great Depression, he too was condemned as a socialist. The same is true of Ronald Reagan, who as President of the Screen Actors Guild, promoted unionization and collective bargaining much to the chagrin of the billionaire studio owners. And when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society landmark legislation of Medicare and Medicaid was proposed LBJ was referred to as a “damn socialist” by conservatives.

What politician today would dare call Medicare or Social Security benefits socialism? The answer is nobody. They have become cherished parts of our social safety net in the context of our capitalist society.

But that won’t stop the election campaign rhetoric of tossing the Socialism hand grenade around by those who want to frighten people. As FDR said of irrationality, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But fear is precisely what some are hoping for when they accuse others of being socialists. The intent is to incite passions and anxiety, true or not.

The health care debate and “Medicare For All” is particularly interesting and potent. It will largely occupy the politics amongst the Democratic contenders for their Party’s nomination as well as the 2020 general election discourse. It is a serious and important discussion. Much more about that next week.

One thought on “Opinion: Who is a socialist? Part I

  1. Pingback: Opinion: Who’s a socialist? Part II | Town & Village

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