My friend, the author and scholar Harvey J. Kaye, delivers this missive on BillMoyers.comfor the 4th of July, reminding us that social democratic principles are, contrary to right wing rhetoric, not “leftist extremism,” but at the very heart of the creation and evolution of America’s political purpose.
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.
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.
The social-democratic tradition was nurtured by Americans both immigrant and native-born, by the so-called “sewer socialist” German Americans who 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 beyond simply the struggle for civil and labor rights, the very premise of the efforts of the so-called “Greatest Generation” reiterated
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.
I do take issue with Harvey on this rather overly generous inquiry regarding the perspectives and intentions of Hillary Clinton…
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.
I think that question has been clearly and thoroughly answered by a lifetime of policy decision making by this woman, whose politics are aggressively neoliberal in content and militaristic in application. Her latest political feint’s in this direction are simply designed to fend off the surging wave of support for Bernie Sanders, and to corral the insurrectionary spirit surging up among the American electorate back into the dead end of the Democratic Party.
So on this 4th of July, here’s to reinvigorating that revolutionary spirit within the trajectory of the American political scene. The very creation of UnCommon Sense TV Media was predicated upon awareness of that need, one seemingly required more than ever today by the circumstances of our time.
For the political revolution of 1776 was in many ways a fundamentally radical act (though the English Civil War of a century earlier helped set the precedent). If the American Revolution was about anything, it was about challenging the notion of government being a tool to confer privilege on insiders, on power being wielded by the few in order to benefit the few at the expense of the many; an age old dilemma we continue to confront generation after generation. Though highly imperfect in what it defined as the “many,” and the “people,” it was a major step in a progressively expansive direction, a notable act towards increased justice on that “long arc of history” that Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke of. Long live the Revolution.