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!

Working Families Party Endorses Warren for 2016

The Advisory Council of the New York Working Families Party has voted to endorse Elizabeth
Warren as a presidential candidate for 2016. While as an independent party, the WFP cannot participate directly in the Democratic Party primary, it is likely that its endorsement would have an impact on progressive Democrats who do vote in the DP primary. In making the endorsement, the Working Families Party joined such organizations as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America in a “draft Warren” effort. A spokesperson for Senator Warren repeated previous denials that she is running.

Bill Lipton, the state director of the party, was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “The only thing better than watching Elizabeth Warren take Wall Street to task from the Senate would be helping her bring our issues to the center of the national debate.” Other WFP leaders were more cautious and insisted that it was not a move against Hilary Clinton. Ed Ott, former head of the New York City Central Labor Council, said, “What the Warren vote reflects is that people want a Democratic Party with spine.”

The Working Families Party is a coalition of labor unions, progressive activists and community advocacy groups. It was prominent in supporting Mayor Bill deBlasio in the New York City election two years ago. Generally the WFP is in coalition with the Democrats and, because of New York’s unusual law permitting fusion voting, the votes for a candidate with multiple party nominations can be counted together.

SDUSA to be at NetRoots Nation

At its convention last October Social Democrats USA determined that the transformation of the Democratic Party into a genuinely progressive- social democratic party was its major political objective. Now SDUSA has taken a giant step toward building the alliances with other progressive groups that can lead to the kind of Democratic Party that it advocates: the National Committee determined to commit a substantial part of the organization’s resources to participation in NetRoots Nation, a national gathering of progressive activists to be held in Phoenix in July. It is expected that SDUSA will be able to present its principles and agenda to more that 3,000 people who form much of the progressive leadership of the nation.

In taking this action, the National Committee recognized that the next two years will present important opportunities for the progressive movement. There is widespread enthusiasm for a possible Presidential candidate of the democratic Left, such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The issues that they and others have raised have sparked a discussion that is already defining the contours of a broad progressive platform. Now is the time for the myriad of progressive groups to come together in a mighty movement to reverse the Republican- corporate Democrat policies of the last thirty years. SDUSA hopes that this will begin at NetRoots Nation.

Given the always uncertain financial health of SDUSA, this was not an easy decision. However, the National Committee is confident that a good member education program will not be affected adversely by the cost of exhibiting at NewRoots Nation. If you want to help,
why not join us and/or make a contribution? You can use the SDUSA tab on this site.

The Road Not Taken: an episode in socialist history

Since the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs collapsed in the early 1920s, social democrats/democratic socialists have almost constantly sought some way to be politically effective, while remaining true to their core principles. At the same time as the Socialist collapse in this country, the British Labour Party formed its first government in 1924, and the example of the BLP was an inspiration to socialists here. The Socialist Party formed a part of the LaFollette Progressive coalition in the 1924 Presidential election, and for most of the next four decades thinking about the electoral instrument the Party hoped to create involved some discussion of the LaFollette coalition, the British Labour Party and, later, the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (today the New Democratic Party). Essentially, the electoral instrument they sought was an independent social democratic “national farmer labor party,” with heavy labor union participation and the Socialist Party as an integral left-wing.

While the 1920s and 1930s saw a variety of local and state labor and farmer labor parties, it became clear that the attraction of Franklin Roosevelt was going to prevent any national independent party of the democratic left. By 1948,with most of organized labor working within the Democratic Party,some members of the Socialist Party realized that they needed a new strategic model. It is important to remember that, even in the late 1940s, there were thousands of people who had been members of the Socialist Party at some time in their lives. This was especially true in the labor movement, with the Reuther brothers being, perhaps, the outstanding example. Most of these people regarded their time in the SP with positive feelings, although they would say such membership was politically impractical. As Thomas observed, this group of friends and former members might have been brought closer to the SP if its electoral policies were changed. Had Thomas and the majority of the Party’s leading committee been able to persuade their comrades to make the changes they proposed, it is quite likely that the influence of the Socialist Party would have increased greatly and that we would have a stronger social democratic/democratic socialist movement today.

1948 was the year in which Norman Thomas ran his sixth and last Presidential campaign. After the expected and inevitable defeat, he and some other leading members of the Socialist Party began to ask themselves and others, in the words of the title of an internal document written by Thomas, ” How Can the Socialist Party Best Serve Socialism?”

The quick and emphatic answer was ” Not by running Presidential candidates.” Thomas and some members of the Party’s National Executive Committee pointed out the obvious drawbacks. First, with the ballot access obstacles thrown up by the major parties, the basic act of getting a candidate on the ballot largely exhausted the pitiable human and financial resources of the Socialist Party. But even heroic efforts were often not enough: in 1948, Thomas observed, the SP was on the ballot in only 30 states, which did not include the major states of California and Ohio. Of courses, resources expended in a hopeless Presidential
contest left the Party with little left over. Further, the electoral policies of the Socialist Party isolated it from meaningful participation in the political process and alienated it from potential members, sympathizers and allies. Thomas observed: “… The more dynamic younger people who at heart are Socialists are refusing to join or, with important exceptions, to stay in the Socialist Party. They want to be free to act in the political field with the great mass of liberals and of labor.” The policies were “… alienating us from precisely those men and women and those organizations whom Socialism must win if ever it is to be victorious.”

The policies in question involved more than running Presidential candidates but guided the Party’s entire participation in electoral politics. They included
1. On pain of expulsion, neither a Socialist group nor an individual member could endorse another party or its candidates, and
2. No Socialist could run in the primary election of another party (When Upton Sinclair captured the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in 1934, he was expelled from the SP, although, since he had stopped paying dues, this was a somewhat futile gesture.).

In 1949 Thomas and his allies were not prepared to endorse one of the major “capitalist” parties. Rather, he suggested, Socialists should work in unions, farm organizations and Americans for Democratic Action for “better” candidates and programs. He conceded that this meant participation in primary and general elections; perhaps he was being somewhat disingenuous because, of course, a primary election is a party election and usually requires at least nominal commitment to a party. He also recognized that there was still residual Socialist strength in such localities as Reading, PA and Milwaukee, WI and granted that some local races could be run under a specifically Socialist banner.

Thomas was not prepared to see Socialists refrain from presenting their own programs: ” I should like to see the Party in every sort of campaign circulate the kind of program that Socialists would recommend. Then we should say: ‘This is the kind of platform you liberal and labor folks ought to adopt and behind which you ought to organize. To carry out this kind of program you need the equivalent of the CCF in Canada or the labor parties in the Scandinavian countries and Britain. If we cooperate with you now on something less it is in order the better to persuade you to go further.'”

Given his personal experience and that of the progressive movement with Communist infiltration tactics, Thomas must have understood that he was proposing Socialist caucuses in other organizations. He emphasized that he was not talking about “boring from within” to gain control of these groups:”We should be concerned with the advancing of ideas rather than the capture of power within other organizations.”

In addition to working with and within other organizations, however, Thomas regarded the continued existence of an independent Socialist group as critical:”…It is essential that we should confer together in our own Socialist meetings and conventions, draw up our programs, plan our projects, and stimulate one another to particular Socialist tasks for which our own particular abilities or our particular jobs and opportunities may especially fit us… We need a nation-wide Socialist Party to carry on an over-all program of education in the Socialist philosophy and program.”

The resolution presented at the 1950 convention of the Socialist Party by Thomas and a majority of the National Executive Committee called for several measures to implement the new strategy:
1. Conduct Socialist research on problems of the reorganization of society
2. Develop new Socialist programs for a mass party
3. Increase the quantity and improve the quality of Socialist literature and publications
4. Sponsor a leadership program to increase the effectiveness of SP members as Socialists
and as members of other organizations
5. Initiate action campaigns on issues affecting the American people.
Probably it would have been accurate to say that these proposals would have turned the SP into an American Fabian Society, but it would have been a Fabian Society on steroids!

This potentially historic change in Socialist strategy was decisively defeated by a vote of 70-37 by the convention delegates. The victors formed a new NEC majority, and their winning resolution made clear that the SP would continue on course. If possible, the Party would use its resources to run national campaigns; members were forbidden to campaign for or to endorse candidates of other parties in primary or general elections; no official body of the SP was allowed to support in any way a Republican or Democratic candidate. Even when SP members participated in liberal or labor organizations, they were required to concentrate on educating their non-socialist fellows on the desirability of “independent political action.” If such an organization supported the candidate of a “capitalist” party, SP members could not join their activities, although they were not actually required to leave the group.

Norman Thomas and the NEC majority had shown a way out of isolation for the Socialist Party. The Party’s majority had rejected that road. Ahead would be a decade of political ineffectiveness and isolation and then nearly another decade of faction fighting before the SP, soon to be Social Democrats USA, would finally take Thomas’ advice.