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.

SDUSA Convention 2014

On October 23/24 of this year, Social Democrats USA held its biennial convention in Pittsburgh— more specifically, Carnegie, Pennsylvania.  The first day consisted of internal working meetings of our organization.  But Friday was reserved for a Public Forum. The forum has two sessions, spliced together into a single video. The total duration of the video is 2 hours and 53 minutes. Our thanks to Jordan McMillen at Cut N Run Studios for the video work. And thanks to Hans Gruenert for the use of the Theater.

Session I focuses on political issues; it features:

Dr. Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science, Barnard College
Dr. Berman is an expert on the development of Social Democracy in Europe; she is also a member of the SDUSA Advisory Council

Herb Engstrom, member of the Executive Committee of the California Democratic Party, and an SDUSA member

Joe Ryan, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at St. Francis College, and an SDUSA member

Session II (starting at 1:40:00) focuses on labor issues; it features:

A video that the SEIU made to publicize the plight of UPMC workers

Ben Brewer, SEUI Asst. Organizing Director of health care workers in Pennsylvania

Jim Staus, former UPMC worker who was fired for engaging in labor organizing

Jeff Ballinger, international labor rights activist, and former SDUSA Executive Director

We will be editing this 3 hour video into smaller pieces to make it a little easier for consumption.  But for now, enjoy. CLICK HERE

New York Social Democrats Endorse Mary Giallanza Carney

The New York delegation of the Social Democrats USA has announced its endorsement of the candidacy of attorney Mary Giallanza Carney as judge for the Erie County Family Court. Mrs. Carney graduated from the SUNY Buffalo School of Law in 2000 and since has specialized in family law in which issues of child custody, child support, family offense issues and matrimonial issues are regularly raised. The family court judges regularly have a strong impact on the lives of working class families and Mrs. Carney has regularly represented children before the Erie County Family Court and New York’s Supreme Court.

Mary Giallanza Carney enjoys wide spread support for her candidacy. She has been endorsed by both the Erie County Democratic and Republican Parties. She has also been endorsed by the Independence Party and the New York Working Families Party. The New York delegation of the Social Democrats USA is now proud to announce its endorsement of her as well. She is according to Michael Mottern the leader of the New York SD delegation “experienced, compassionate, and is an independent thinker.” Different from many politicians. she will work to serve the working families of Erie County. For this reason the SD’s New York delegation has decided to endorse Mary Giallanza Carney

Mary Giallanza Carney

Mary Giallanza Carney


The Dangerous Price of Ignoring Syria

Again I want to remind readers that the opinions of the writers here do not necessarily represent the stated position of the Social Democrats USA.

“America may think it does not have any interests in Syria, but it has interests everywhere the Syrian conflict touched.”

As regrettable as the Syrian conflict is with its loss of 70,000 Syrian lives, the United States has no national interest in intervening in the conflict. That mantra of “national self interest” is heard repeatedly by the majority of media pundits as represented by such well known figures as Ted Koppel and foreign policy professionals such as Robert E. Hunter who advise the Obama administration to refuse to get involved in the Syrian conflict in any way beyond its  role as a provider of humanitarian aid and of diplomatic posturing. Well Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University is also able to discuss America’s self interest. And he believes that it is in America’s national self interest to aid the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad regime. I think he has the more credible position.

Glenn King

The Dangerous Price of Ignoring Syria

By: Vali Nasr

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune.

President Obama has doggedly resisted American involvement in Syria. The killing of over 70,000 people and the plight of over a million refugees have elicited sympathy from the White House but not much more. That is because Syria challenges a central aim of Obama’s foreign policy: shrinking the U.S. footprint in the Middle East and downplaying the region’s importance to global politics. Doing more on Syria would reverse the U.S. retreat from the region.

Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, the administration’s stance as events unfolded in the Middle East has been wholly reactive. This “lean back and wait” approach has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East. Click here to continue.


On the Proposed Social Security Change

President Obama has proposed in his budget message to Congress is going to propose a shift to the use of “chained” CPI from the cost of living index now used to calculate Social Security benefits.
Such a change would be, in fact, a reduction in the benefits received by current and future beneficiaries of the Social Security system, and Social Democrats USA strongly opposes it. We urge all members of the labor and progressive communities to join us in resisting the President’s proposal and to express their strong opposition to the President and to the Congress. Strengthen Social Security, a coalition of over 300 organizations, is sponsoring an electronic petition on its web site, and opponents of the proposal may wish to sign that petition.
The irony of this cut in Social Security benefits is that it will have no effect on the deficit controversy because Social Security is not funded from the Federal budget. Rather, it a clear effort by the President to signal his willingness to slash “entitlements” to reach a “grand bargain” with conservative Republicans. It should be evident by now that these Republicans are not interested in bipartisan agreements for good government but are determined to take every opportunity to strike at an already inadequate “welfare state.” It ill behooves the present leader of the party of Franklin Roosevelt to lend any support or credence to any efforts to damage one of President Roosevelt’s finest legacy