Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.
There is at least one organization that won’t label President Obama a “marxist” or “socialist,” and it ought to know. I speak of the Democratic Socialists of America, a tiny group of less than 6,000 members that is rather benign and wholly within the American mainstream compared, say, to the extreme radicalism of the raucous anti-government Tea Parties.
The DSA was founded in 1982 by the late Michael Harrington who won fame in the Sixties for his book The Other America,” a passionate expose of rural and urban poverty that shocked the nation and brought about Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.
Harrington’s DSA co-founder was Barbara Ehrenreich, a prolific journalist whose books, Nickeled and Dimed and Bait And Switch, chronicled the business practices that have victimized low-paid workers and consumers. Unlike the far right Republicans and Tea Baggers, Harrington and Ehrenreich were (and are) people of talent and accomplishment and, as far as I know, they have not sought the overthrow of the government or the destruction of a president.
In fact, if you visit their web site, you will see how close to the American ideals these socialists are. They call themselves the Democratic Left and they have nothing in common with the centralized communist regimes of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, North Korea and China.
It is true that Harrington embraced the theories of Karl Marx who held that unfettered capitalism would fail because the rich would get richer and the rest would be exploited by corporate excess. But those were also the views of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, both of whom were in favor of government intervention to tame capitalism.
True to our Democratic values, the DSA does not call not for government ownership of private business, but for tempering the excesses of the unregulated, free-wheeling market economies with Social Democratic reforms such as health care, social insurance and public education like those in most of Europe, Japan and other enlightened countries.
As the DSA web site says,
“In the short term we can’t eliminate private corporations, but we can bring them under greater democratic control. The government could use regulations and tax incentives to encourage companies to act in the public interest and outlaw destructive activities such as exporting jobs to low-wage countries and our environment.”
These could have been the goals of Republican presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, creator of our national parks, trust buster William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, who sponsored the Interstate Highway system, or Democrats like Harry Truman who confronted Soviet communism, or John Kennedy, who championed civil rights.
Only the very far right, which is what Republicans have become, could disagree with those sentiments. But they seem so ignorant of the consequences of their hard shell, laissez faire views that they would destroy in government what is in their own best interests. Their targets include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Education, public education itself (Thomas Jefferson’s idea), the civil rights laws, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
What’s next? The VA medical system? The Tennessee Valley Authority? Government owned military hospitals? The Post Office? Public highways? Public utilities? Surely many tea baggers use these services. Were millions of us un-American when we used the GI Bill?
My quarrel is not with these know-nothings who pop up now and again in American politics; they won’t succeed. My aim is to give lie to their fears and fear mongering of Democratic-based socialism. That happens to be as American as the pioneers who came west in communal wagon trains or the railroads, built with the help of government on public lands.
Even at its birth and in war, the government acts of 1787 and 1862, which opened the northwest territories, created land grant colleges and enabled farmers to stake their 40 acres. Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase was not specifically permitted by the Constitution, nor was the purchase of Alaska in 1867. Should we give them back?
When I wrote a few weeks ago that the VA health system, among other American enterprises, was socialist, most of my replies via the internet were positive and supportive. Many Americans, if truth be told to them, would welcome some democratic socialism - in health care and other public services like good roads and strong bridges and street lights, which are disappearing.
One of my readers, unsigned, wrote,
“The only thing better than Medicare or the VA is having both...I was on my way to the Minneapolis VA hospital for a 2PM MRI on a Sunday...when I had chest pains and shortness of breath. So I went to the VA emergency room...I had three doctors, three nurses and three technicians treat me before sending me on to my MRI (where the technician waited for me until 4PM.) Anyone who claims the government can’t do health care should walk a mile in my orthopaedic shoes.”
On the other hand, Marcelo M. writes,
“If anything, the VA system is the poster child as to why we shouldn’t have socialized Medicine...Mandates that require you buy health care violates the Constitution...”
(That is questionable, but the issue is before the courts.)
And Jerry L. says “medical care can’t be a free lunch,” and he suggests competition could hold down costs if patients and insurance companies can choose among doctors and hospitals.
But “kerewin21" asks,
“How does the VA system violate the Constitution? And he adds, “It’s really hard to make medicine into a truly competitive marketplace...Do you choose the doctor who costs half as much for your knee surgery? Do you call around to emergency rooms to find out who charges the least for a CT-scan?”
Americans who have not traveled abroad tend to belittle the experiences of Europeans like David Jordan, who is a British PhD, in geophysics and leader of a university research team. He was in business for many years and now lives in Germany’s social democracy.
“Politically,” he writes, “I’m a caring capitalist but my only affiliation is to Whatever Works. Ideologies give me the creeps.”
He’s a fan of Britain’s National Health Service even though the waiting room at a doctor’s office may include unwashed working stiffs. But he praised his emergency room treatment of a bad chest infection, and the NHS was there to help his wife give birth at home (his choice) to two children. “For free,” Jordan said. “It was wonderful. Can’t do that in the U.S....Isn’t socialism a bitch?”
The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, back in New York after a year in Germany, observed in a September 2 essay entitled, It’s Better Over There, that
“not once in my time in Berlin, which is a relatively poor city,” did she see “the kind of destitution we take for granted in the United States...The strong German safety net keeps people from plunging into the abyss.”
She cited a new book by Chicago labor lawyer and writer, Tom Geoghegan, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?.
As Pollitt writes, Geoghegan contrasts the Western European social democracies with laissez faire America which victimizes not only the poor, but the middle class, which has meager economic protection compared to their counterparts in Europe. He argues,
“contrary to U.S. popular opinion, life is better for almost everyone in a social democratic system like those in Western Europe, especially Germany. ”Even with high taxes that support the system and its benefits for workers, the unemployed, students and new mothers, Germany’s economy is in better shape than ours.”
Also missing in Europe’s social democracies is the kind of irrational hostility towards government that has led Republicans to advocate deep cuts in taxes and government services. There are consequences: In wealthy San Diego, a two-year-old boy, Bentley Do, choked to death on a gum ball last July when help was delayed for a precious nine minutes because budget cuts had closed the nearest firehouse.
The next day, Bentley’s Vietnamese mother, six months pregnant, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and collapsed from exhaustion and grief. I saw mention of the tragedy only in the New York Times, which reported that San Diego is still reluctant to consider a tax increase to restore public services.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org