By JOHN BUTERBAUGH
If it weren’t for Donald Trump and his campaign announcement speech, the Republican primary candidates would not even be discussing immigration. Moreover, without Bernie Sanders running as openly socialist, we would not even be discussing democratic socialism. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t dare discuss democratic socialism or many left-wing policies without the presence of Bernie Sanders.
Quite often, the debate on ideologies touches on electability, e.g., “This candidate cannot win because they are too ideologically extreme.” For our purposes, we shall discuss the ideologies and the efficacy thereof as opposed to discussing knee-jerk reactions to policy proposals.
Democratic socialism, unlike authoritarian socialism, depends on the people to combine efforts and collectively control the means of production and decision-making. In Sanders’ home state of Vermont, co-ops — where the workers own the company — are abundant. Authoritarian socialism, as seen in the People’s Republic of China, thwarts popular will and establishes leadership that prevents any sort of parity. People have argued over the effectiveness of democratic socialism in Europe, for example. “Democratic socialism hinders economic growth” or “Democratic socialism increases public debt.” There is no doubt, however, that democratic socialism has been consequential in Europe. Western and Northern Europe formed democratic socialist governments during the Cold War to provide enough for the people so that they would not turn to more radical forms of socialism, i.e. Soviet-style communism. Governments would guarantee universal healthcare, higher wages, and often free higher education.
The issue with the European model of democratic socialism is that it depends on a low military budget. European countries are able to invest in universal healthcare and education precisely because they do not have to spend much on defense. In the United States, military spending was 17.6% of national government spending. The military spending of other NATO countries (including Canada and 26 European countries) ranged from 0.4% to 6.7%. Currently, the U.S. spends $789 million of its military budget on European defense, and a current proposal would quadruple that commitment. With NATO countries in Europe living under the American security umbrella, they can afford to spend less money on their militaries.
The United States also faces issues in establishing a universal healthcare system. Not only has the 1980s conservative movement inspired people to oppose non-military government expansion, America is also the home of Big Pharma. Pfizer, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson are multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies based in the U.S. They help contribute to the fact that the U.S. holds 40% of the global pharmaceutical market. Publicly traded companies such as these three depend on stockholders for investment. As a result, they must post large profits so that stockholders can reap the dividends and continue investing in their company. Big Pharma has a strong lobby in Washington that protects their profits. On the other hand, European governments have an easier time negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies. European countries have a lower share of profit-driven companies that would lose out on a profit if their drug prices were lowered. In the U.S., the incentive to sell medicine for profit causes the entire medical industry to prefer administering drugs over preventative practices.
Public sentiment has nominally opposed socialism due to an erroneous association to Soviet-style communism. However, the federal government has established a number of socialist programs that Americans appreciate. Teddy Roosevelt formed the Food and Drug Administration to keep Americans safe from harmful foods. FDR launched several recovery programs and Social Security. Eisenhower taxed the wealthiest Americans at 90% and launched the Interstate Highway System. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society created Medicare and Medicaid. However, Johnson’s military intervention in Vietnam faced so much opposition that the spirit of the Great Society faded. Afterward, Nixon cracked down on drugs, and Reagan taught the American people to mistrust the government for anything other than war (on other countries or on drugs). This is why Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had such a hard time selling their healthcare initiatives to the American people.
Socialism works when it is implemented properly and in the right context. Too often socialism is seen as a system that coddles millions of “learned helpless” individuals with welfare money and food stamps. Socialism can be something greater, and in fact, it is. It’s about liberating workers from the excesses of capitalism. It’s about understanding that it is not the government that runs industry; it’s the American people who run industry together. It’s about understanding that education is not an entitlement program; it is an empowerment program that creates an informed society. Moreover, through socialism, the government protects a key tenet of capitalism: competition. By itself, the free market fails to break up monopolies. Thus, the government has a duty to prevent companies from providing poor or expensive service through regulation or breakups. Socialism is not a fringe ideology; it is one that looks to create the best society for the people.
Socialism cannot succeed in America unless the American people unite in favor of it. The Democratic Party has won the presidential popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. However, in the last 12 Congressional elections, the Republican Party has won the House nine times and the Senate six or seven times. The fact of the matter is that voters turn out more to vote for president (54.9% in 2012) than they do for Congressional midterm elections (36.4% in 2014). The American people cannot expect a socialist president to be consequential unless there is a political revolution across the board. We have to democratically elect a socialist president along with a cooperative Congress.