Social Democracy Is 100% American

Editor’s Note: This post by Harvey J. Kaye, University of Wisconsin, first appeared on Moyers & company. It is reposted here with his permission.

Appearing late last week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe,Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri insisted that Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont “is too liberal to gather enough votes in this country to become president.” Indeed, responding to the fact that candidate Sanders is not only drawing big, enthusiastic crowds to campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire, but also pulling within 10 points of frontrunner and party favorite Hillary Clinton in certain state polls, McCaskill said: “It’s not unusual for someone who has an extreme message to have a following.”

Extreme? McCaskill’s remarks indicate that we may be in more trouble than we thought. For some time we have feared that Republican politicians were losing their minds. Now it seems we must worry, as well, that Democratic politicians are losing their memories.

Clearly, McCaskill’s attack — which, to me, smacked of red baiting — was intended as a dismissal of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy based on the fact that Sanders, who has repeatedly won elections in Vermont as an independent and then caucused with the Senate Democrats, is a self-described “democratic socialist” or “social democrat.” And of course, we all know that social democracy is not just unpopular in the United States, it is un-American.

Well, think again. Social democracy is 100 percent American. We may be latecomers to recognizing a universal right to health care (indeed, we are not quite there yet). But we were first in creating a universal right to public education, in endowing ourselves with ownership of national parks, and, for that matter, in conferring voting rights on males without property and abolishing religious tests for holding national office.

Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos

But there’s even more to the story. It was the American Revolution’s patriot and pamphleteer, Thomas Paine — a hero today to folks left and right, including tea partiers — who launched the social-democratic tradition in the 1790s. In his pamphlets,Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice, Paine outlined plans for combating poverty that would become what we today call Social Security.

As Paine put it in the latter work, since God has provided the earth and the land upon it as a collective endowment for humanity, those who have come to possess the land as private property owe the dispossessed an annual rent for it. Specifically, Paine delineated a limited redistribution of income by way of a tax on landed wealth and property. The funds collected were to provide both grants for young people to get started in life and pensions for the elderly.

 

Think again. The social-democratic tradition was nurtured by Americans both immigrant and native-born – by the so-called “sewer socialist” German Americanswho helped to build the Midwest and, inspired by the likes of Eugene Debs and Victor Berger, radically improved urban life by winning battles for municipal ownership of public utilities. By the Jewish and Italian workers who toiled and suffered in the sweatshops of New York and Chicago but then, led by David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, created great labor unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. By the farmers and laborers who rallied to the grand encampments on the prairies organized by populists and socialists across the southwest to hear how, working together in alliances, they could break the grip of Wall Street and create a Cooperative Commonwealth. By African-Americans who came north in the Great Migration to build new lives for themselves and, led by figures such as the socialist, labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, energized the civil rights movement in the 1930s.

And think again. Think about the greatest president of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt, whose grand, social-democratic New Deal initiatives – from the CCC, WPA and Rural Electrification Administration, to Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act — not only rescued the nation from the Great Depression, but also reduced inequality and poverty and helped ready the United States to win the second World War and become the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth.

Fighting for the Four Freedoms

Moreover, those we celebrate as the Greatest Generation, the men and women who confronted the Great Depression and went on to defeat fascism, fought for the decidedly social-democratic Four Freedoms – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear – and the chance of realizing them at war’s end.

Polls conducted in 1943 showed that 94 percent of Americans endorsed old-age pensions; 84 percent, job insurance; 83 percent, universal national health insurance; and 79 percent, aid for students — leading FDR in his 1944 State of the Union message to propose a Second Bill of Rights that would guarantee those very things to all Americans. All of which would be blocked by a conservative coalition of pro-corporate Republicans and white supremacist southern Democrats. And yet, with the aid of the otherwise conservative American Legion, FDR did secure one of the greatest social-democratic programs in American history: the G.I. Bill that enabled 12,000,000 returning veterans to progressively transform themselves and the nation for the better.

Nor did that generation of veterans give up their social-democratic aspirations. On reaching middle age in the 1960s, they enacted civil rights, voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid; established protections for the environment, workers and consumers; and dramatically expanded educational opportunities, especially in public higher education.

We ourselves honor America’s social-democratic history with two great monuments on the National Mall – not just the FDR Memorial, but also the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Yes, King was a democratic socialist. Drawing on the New Deal experience, embracing the American tradition of Christian socialism and peaceful activism, and believing, like so many of his generation, that Americans could harness the powers of democratic government to enhance freedom and equality, he campaigned for both racial justice and the rights of working people and the poor.

Senator McCaskill’s attack on Senator Sanders appears to have been launched on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Its rationale rests on the belief that, in the light of the past 40 years of conservative ascendancy and liberal retreat, her words were simple common sense: Aren’t we, as the talking heads tell us, a center-right nation?

Well, no, we are emphatically not. And it is regrettable that by swallowing this myth, the present leadership of the Democratic Party, embodied in the Democratic National Committee has, in election after election, shrunk from some of the party’s best traditions in order to keep up in the race for campaign cash, even to the extent of marginalizing and openly scorning what is described as its “left wing.”

Indeed, when America’s purpose and promise have been in jeopardy we acted radically, progressively, and, yes, as social democrats. Hillary Clinton herself seemed to recognize the power of that history and its legacy by launching her new presidential campaign at New York City’s Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. Though she never did actually pronounce the words of FDR’s Four Freedoms, her speech revealed some awareness of a reviving — dare we say it? — social-democratic spirit? Whether simply tactical or genuine on her part is an important question that remains to be answered.

Bernie Sanders may never appear at Four Freedoms Park. But he sounds like FDR, not simply because you can practically hear him saying of the one percent what FDR did — “I welcome their hatred” — but all the more because of what he wants to do: tax the rich, create a single-payer national health care system, make public higher education free to all qualified students, create jobs by refurbishing the nation’s public infrastructure, and address the environment and climate change.

But even more critically, like FDR he doesn’t say he wants to fight for us. He seeks to encourage the fight in us: “It is up to us to launch the most heroic of all struggles: a political revolution.” If that is “extreme,” then Democrats like McCaskill are not just forgetting their history, but trying to suppress it.

That Sanders, given his background, is garnering huge crowds who shout his name with an enthusiasm reminiscent of the heyday of the People’s Party in the 1890s, radiates a special glow. Americans may once again be remembering who they are and what they need to do to recapture a government now in thrall to the Money Power. And that ain’t extreme. It’s fundamentally American.

**Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.

Netroots 2015

Secretary Treasurer Rick D'Loss and interim Chair Patty Friend

Secretary Treasurer Rick D’Loss and interim Chair Patty Friend

Social Democrats USA attended Netroots Nation for the first time this year. The first Netroots Nation convention (then called the YearlyKos convention) was held in 2006. At the time SDUSA was going through a bad spell— still suffering from the death of our Executive Director, Penn Kemble. Netroots started as a convention of political bloggers (headed by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the DailyKos fame) who wanted to use the internNET to develop grassROOTS political organizations— hence the name change to Netroots. Yes, there were some big name speakers at the very first Netroots, including Howard Dean, Harry Reid, and Barbara Boxer, and since then the annual convention has become a “must attend” event for Democratic candidates. Thus it is interesting that Hillary did not show up this year. Elizabeth Warren was present, as was Martin O’Malley. But clearly the favorite of the crowd was Bernie Sanders. Almost everyone that I interacted with over the 3 days of Netroots was wearing a Bernie button.

Netroots-Black-Lives-Matter-OMalley-Netroots

Jose Antonio Vargas, Tia Oso, Martin O’Malley

As you saw in the press over the weekend, the big story was the interruption of the candidates forum on Saturday morning by the “Black Lives Matter” coalition. The less than stellar responses by O’Malley and Sanders were most reported. What wasn’t reported was that the protesters were protesting the Netroots organizers, not the candidates. They felt that that the issue of blacks being harassed and killed by police should be front and center, and that the mostly white Netroots organizers were unsympathetic to the crisis. Hence, when forum moderator Vargas was conducting his Q&A, the protesters assembled and took over. In fairness to O’Malley and Sanders, it was Vargas who was in charge of dealing with the situation. At one point, Sanders looked at Vargas and asked “what are we doing”? Most of us have been involved in protests at some point or another. The goal is to disrupt the normal flow of things, get attention for your cause, and perhaps make some demands. I think if you accomplish the first two and not the third, you have missed an opportunity. That’s what I saw Saturday. The protesters had the sympathy of the crowd, initially. They stopped the show. The leaders were invited to the stage. They spoke their piece. And they demanded responses from O’Malley and later Sanders. But here’s were it fell apart. As the candidates were responding to the protesters, the protesters continued their protest and didn’t allow the candidates to speak. Vargas was unable to control the situation.

Vargas asking the protesters to let Sanders speak

Vargas asking the protesters to let Sanders speak

Hence, O’Malley exited the stage after his “all lives matter” comment was not well received. Sanders ended up shouting over top of the protesters, which was also not well received. When Vargas said our time is up, Bernie responded, “good”. Amongst the audience there were mixed responses: some sympathetic to the protesters and some not. One man near me hollered, “sit down and shut up” at the protesters. I asked my colleague Patty what she thought. She recalled the protests of her youth during the sixties. “We disrupted a lot. But what was the result? We got Ronald Reagan for governor because he promised to crack down on agitators. Protesting has its limits. You have to get the politicians on your side if you want action.”

For me, that was the lesson of the day. Protesting is just venting anger and frustration if there is no follow-up. No matter how sympathetic we are to the anger, there will be no value to the protest if it can’t be turned into political action.

Suspicious Humanist- Spring 2015

Steve Weiner is a member of SDUSA’s National Committee. He lives in Medford, Oregon. For 45 years Steve has been publishing his thoughts in a paper he calls the Suspicious Humanist. Like many of you, I get barraged by reading material from many political, cultural, and news media organizations. Yet, I always make time to read the Suspicious Humanist. The writing is thoughtful and enlightening. Steve never focuses on just one subject, and each item is an easy read, short and pithy. He uniquely weaves a story of politics, literature, psychology, religion, and ethics. He will insert an unrelated vignette here and there. It never fails that the 10 minutes I spend are very well worth it.  I have attached the most recent copy HERE.

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Of the People

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863On this Presidents Day, we take pause to remember our past national leaders: particularly Presidents Lincoln and Washington. Here in my home town of Carnegie, PA, we unveil a new permanent exhibit in our Library & Music Hall facility which we are calling the Lincoln Gallery. It features 100 photographs of Abraham Lincoln and will reside next to the Capt. Thomas Espy GAR Post, America’s most intact Civil War veterans post. A full schedule of events is planned to mark the occasion.

I cannot claim to be deeply knowledgeable about all our presidents. Like many folks, I know our major presidents and their historical significance, with President Lincoln being a standout. Over the weekend I spent time browsing through Stefan Lorant’s huge book, Pittsburgh: Story of an American City. It gave a solid accounting of the founding of our city and Colonel George Washington’s military role. Although engrossing— you can spend hours just skimming its 1100 pictures— a person could conclude that Pittsburgh was inhabited only by wealthy white people even up to present day (1964). To the contrary, the growth of this great industrial city is the story of working people of all colors, ethnicities, and national origins. The minimal attention paid to the working people of Pittsburgh is the book’s main failing. Regardless, I bring up the Hungarian Lorant because he was a noted historian of American presidents, and even the presidency itself. In particular he wrote several books on Lincoln. The printing of the 100 Lincoln photographs I mentioned above was originally commissioned by Lorant and accomplished by noted Pittsburgh photographer Norm Schumm.

Elected officials often point to past leaders who inspired and motivated them. Even as a small player in municipal government, I am no different. All presidents are flawed, as all of us human beings are, but there are certain words and deeds that resonate in us. In particular I admire FDR’s elaboration of our Four Freedoms and Harry Truman’s racial integration of the military in 1947— an unpopular move. And who can forget Eisenhower’s warning about defense contractors. Since those presidents, however, our presidency has become infected by Hollywood. I’m not blaming our presidents for that; advances in film, television, advertising, and now the internet, have forced presidents into an all flash and no substance mode of operation. So, when I think back to my influences, I have to go pretty far back. And for me, that’s Lincoln.

As with any war, we are obligated to weigh the merits against the costs. Certainly the costs of the Civil War were huge and devastating. Some claim that Lincoln had no choice because the secession of the Confederacy would have irreparably damaged our nation— that the North and the South were co-dependent and could not exist separately. But I expect that trade relations between the two countries would have continued quite normally after the divorce. Indeed, it was slavery that was the defining element, and the question of whether or not America would go to war in support of its least powerful “citizens”. It is a moral question, not a financial one. It is still a question we grapple with today, for example, when we look at the 3 million Syrian refugees and ask ourselves if we have any obligations to help others in distress. Lincoln made his stand, and paid for it with his life. He said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm”.

Also, we are reminded that the War was not the only issue of Lincoln’s day. He presided during a period of great industrial expansion. As capitalists converted human beings into factory machines, Lincoln responded, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration”. And lastly, and most significantly for me, Lincoln provided guidance for elected representatives in the last words of his Gettysburg Address, “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”. This is the very foundation of social democracy and people around the world have adopted this motto as they shake off the bonds of tyranny. Have an enjoyable and memorable Presidents Day.

Medicare: a personal story

In the early morning hours of a day last October, my theories of optimal medical insurance began to be put to the harsh tests of reality.

My wife had gone to bed early, saying that she had a sore throat. At about 5 A.M she woke me and said that she couldn’t breathe. An ambulance took her to the local hospital, where she was sedated and intubated. She was unconscious. By about 11 o’clock her blood pressure began to drop, and my daughters and I were told that she would be transferred to cardiac intensive care at Massachusetts General Hospital because the doctors feared that she was having a heart attack. We followed her to MGH and began a three month vigil.

Massachusetts General Hospital is probably one of the best hospitals in the world. It is also probably one of the most expensive. My wife, Carol, was in an intensive care unit for about three weeks, during which we learned that the basic problem was not her heart but a bacterial infection. Mass General prides itself on its treatment of infections, and that problem was soon on its way to solution. However, Carol remained unconscious; an MRI showed bleeding in many parts of her brain, probably brought on by the infection. She was in a medical unit at MGH for another week, where she was fitted with breathing and feeding tubes, and then she was transferred to what I am told is the region’s finest rehabilitation
hospital. We had no assurance that she would ever regain consciousness and if she did, what her mental condition would be.

About two weeks into this process, when Carol’s condition was stabilized, the thought crossed my mind that this world-class care probably had a world-class price tag. Suddenly I was faced with the reality that thousands of insured Americans go bankrupt each year because of medical expenses. In addition to Carol’s physical condition and our deep anxiety, there was the possibility of financial disaster after years of hard work and careful saving. I gathered the books on medical insurance issued by my various insurance carriers and began to read carefully what the various plans covered and how they were coordinated. After an hour or so the conclusion was clear: we were unlikely to have any more than quite minor costs for which we would be liable. For the first time in what seemed ages, I had an enormous sense of relief. We could concentrate on Carol getting better,and in the middle of December, she began to recover consciousness. At the end of January she came home and today is her old self, except that she has trouble balancing the checkbook!

Is this a tribute to the insurance companies of America? Far from it! You see, like most elderly people, we are covered by Medicare Parts A and B and a supplement that is private but government-standardized. As I followed the claims process, it was seamless and required no intervention on my part. The claim went directly to Medicare and then to the private carrier. Presumably, if there had then been a balance, I would have been billed. In fact, with this catastrophic illness, I received one bill for $235. I probably could have contested it if my emotional state had been better, but it was easier to write the check.

Why am I troubling you with this intensely personal story? First, to point out that, for part of our population, we already have a well-functioning government health insurance system, and in my experience it does not interfere in any way with superb medical treatment and does not involve bureaucratic red tape. It is Medicare, and unfortunately it covers mostly us old folks. After my own relief at our coverage, my next thought was, why doesn’t everybody in this country have the same assurance of good treatment
without anxiety over costs? The short answer is that medical insurance in this country is in the hands of companies that have a vested interest in denying claims and hassling people who are already having a hard time. President Obama and the corporate Democrats left health insurance for most people in the hands of these companies when the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 (when the Democrats controlled Congress). They had before them a workable and working example in Medicare, and they ignored it.

At the same time that my family and I were going through this terrible experience, the implementation of “Obamacare” began. It is composed of many moving parts, like some ramshackle Rube Goldberg machine, and some of those parts, like the expansion of Medicaid in the states,are in the hands of politicians deeply opposed to the whole idea. The finest administrator would have had difficulty with its implementation, and there is no evidence that Barack Obama has an abundance of administrative skill. We have before us an example of how to make health insurance work. Medicare for All!

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