Bernie Sanders boldly declares that he’s a democratic socialist, and the Republicans loudly and regularly declare that President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and all Democrats are plain old run of the mill socialists, whatever that might mean. So one way or another, socialism has suddenly become all the rage, or maybe it’s all just rage about socialism. In truth, the word gets used so broadly and loosely it hardly has any clear meaning, but while I’m a dyed-in-the wool left winger I actually like what I think the Republicans mean. And like the fictional President Sally Macalester in Impeachment Day, I think the country needs a lot more of it.
Let me explain.
The real meaning of socialism is actually quite straightforward: “a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.” But if that’s the test, no one now running for President (not even Bernie) qualifies as a socialist. While he might raise taxes, he would not have the government take over any industries. The Koch brothers won’t ever have to worry about nationalized refineries.
So if no one’s really a socialist, what the heck do the Republicans mean when they say every Democrat is one? Near as I can tell, they think it’s having the government take responsibility for anything beyond the military. Government subsidies for health insurance and requirements that people buy private insurance and that private insurers accept people regardless of their health suddenly becomes socialism. Of course that’s Obamacare. Medicare, which is run by the government, probably is socialized insurance by most any definition, but it is not socialized medicine, and in any event most Americans want to keep it. Maybe even real socialism isn’t so bad.
Republicans also seem to think that any kind of assistance to needy people, from food stamps to student loans, is somehow socialism. But redistribution and welfare programs don’t involve any government interference with the means of production, much less government ownership. In fact, if we accept the Republican view on what’s socialistic, we’ve had socialism in the United States for a long, long time, starting with the Postal Service, which is in the Constitution. Universal pre-college education provided by local governments would be another prime and longstanding example. And what about highways built by state and federal governments, and railroads subsidized by the government? All blatantly socialist if you’re a Republican.
And if that’s their definition, there are a few more things I’d readily add to the socialism list. Like Sanders, I’d do Medicare for all, and free education through college. It’s become an accepted truism that where once upon a time a high school degree was enough for many good jobs, times have changed, and more is required. Having people stay in school longer would have the double benefit of keeping them from competing for jobs (which would lower unemployment) while also making them better qualified when they do join the workforce. I’d also expand Social Security, and turn it into a full fledged national retirement system. That would get employers out of the pension benefit business and also make it easier for people to move on to a better job if they wanted to.
Except for the expansion of Medicare (which, again is socialized health insurance), none of my proposals qualifies as traditional socialism. But if that’s the label Republicans want use, let’s have at it. Like President Macalester, we should focus on things that yield practical results, and not worry about political labels.