Socialism. Socialist. These are practically dirty words in the United States. Unfortunately, these small words will probably be the final obstacle for Bernie Sanders on his path toward the Democratic presidential nomination. As the progressive U.S. Senator (I-VT) becomes more of a threat to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, her supporters will undoubtedly begin to strike back. Their attacks will likely coalesce around the word “socialism.”
Polls indicate that Americans still view “socialism” with trepidation and distrust, with only half indicating that they would be willing to vote for a socialist. Bernie Sanders has called himself a socialist, as in “democratic socialist.” Though many democratic socialists call themselves socialists for the sake of simplicity, many Americans undoubtedly link the word “socialist” with the very undemocratic socialism of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Yes, many Americans will be prone to linking Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism with the politics of Stalin and Brezhnev. Insinuating this false link will be the last redoubt of Hillary Clinton’s camp. Even if most Americans distrust Clinton due to her festering e-mail scandals and controversial links to wealthy donors and Wall Street bigwigs, they will still struggle to accept voting for a “socialist.” Their grade-school social studies classes have inadvertently helped Clinton’s moderacy seem more “American.”
We need to figure out how to talk about the S-word. Socialism. It is the final boulder on the Herculean path to get Bernie Sanders to the Democratic presidential nomination.
As a high school economics teacher, I must explain to my students, both regular and Advanced Placement (AP), how socialism is different from communism. Socialism is when the government owns some of the most productive resources, but allows for private property rights otherwise. In the world today, socialism is on the vast spectrum of mixed economies, which feature a mixture of market and command elements. Almost twenty-five years after the collapse of the USSR, only North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Cuba, still operate traditional command economies.
However, pure capitalism, or market economy, also no longer exists. Even the most conservative market economies have inserted prominent command elements. With the advent of the New Deal in 1933, upon the inauguration of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States rapidly abandoned laissez-faire capitalism. In quick succession, we created the FDIC, Social Security, a federal minimum wage, and a slew of federal jobs programs. As World War II drew to a close, we added the Montgomery G.I. Bill to provide college funding for military veterans and their dependents. During the 1960s, under president Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and “Great Society” reforms, we added Medicare and Medicaid.
Civil Rights legislation, which prevents privately-owned businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, gender, creed, or national origin, could also be seen as one of these command elements in our market economy.
Today, the vast majority of Americans enjoy “socialist” reforms. They have graduated from public schools, matriculated at public universities, and enjoyed federal student loans. They can dial 9-1-1 during an emergency and know that help will come for them, regardless of ability to pay. They can count on some income during their retirement. A huge, Soviet-esque federal military provides a blanket of security and countless jobs.
During the era of America’s “socialist” reforms, from 1933 to the end of the 1960s, Americans’ quality of life improved almost beyond measure. These reforms put an end to the Great Depression, helped us win World War II, and paved the way for an era of tremendous economic and infrastructural growth that spanned from the late 1940s to the 1960s. The era culminated with manned moon missions, revealing the breathtaking technological advances spawned by dedicated government funding and research.
The decline in real wages since the mid- to late-1970s has continued unabated. While GDP has risen, the portion of Americans enjoying this growth has fallen to record lows. Economic inequality has soared to a record last seen in 1928, just before a stock market crash triggered the Great Depression. Conservative reforms appear to be leading us toward crisis, not providing us a “rising tide” that is lifting “all boats.” When improvements in production do occur, the profits are entirely owned by the top one percent of earners.
Bernie Sanders’ proposals of universal health care and tuition-free public higher education for all qualified students are necessary to repair our ailing economy. Public K-12 education, by far the most “socialist” reform enacted in the United States, is often credited with our economic strength. Why not extend it to college, like our European peers? Making higher education more like public K-12 will increase equitable access while controlling for cost. Our current use of unlimited federal student loans and ample university subsidies, while still maintaining near-total consumer and producer freedom, has caused tuition rates to soar while leading to zero gains in human capital.
Our obsession with health and health care should prompt us to finally enact universal health care. Allowing citizens to procure medical treatment without paying out of pocket will lead to vast savings as ailments and illnesses are dealt with promptly. Today, many Americans delay treatment until they can no longer ignore their painful symptoms, necessitating treatment that is both invasive and expensive. Sadly, we delay treatment because medical care has become exorbitantly expensive. Market forces, just like with higher education, have failed to increase quality and lower cost. Rather, the “free market” has allowed both higher education and health care costs to skyrocket.
Ironically, everyone must be given treatment at overly-expensive emergency rooms. This care, which is vastly more expensive than primary care, is often funded by taxpayers since patients cannot pay the bill. By not paying for primary care, our society is paying for more emergency care later.
Correcting the failures of the free market by bringing public higher education and primary health care into the “socialist” fold will allow us to return the U.S. economy to greatness. With students of aptitude now guaranteed access to four-year universities, we will finally see advances in human capital once more. With Americans able to seek primary care without breaking the bank, our work force will be fitter and healthier than ever before. America will become smarter and healthier as a whole, able to innovate its way into the new century.
And Bernie Sanders is the president to take us there.
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