With a self-declared “democratic socialist” among the leading contenders for president, fully half of U.S. voters told the Gallup Poll recently that they don’t want a socialist of any kind in elective office.
Americans see their country as “capitalistic,” and many are repulsed by even the mention of socialism.
But inquiring minds may take the time to wonder what Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont means when he says he’s a “democratic socialist.”
The answer may surprise you: Socialism is firmly entrenched in the U.S., and a large majority of Americans seem to like it just fine, because they elect and re-elect folks who variously support any number of “socialistic” laws and institutions.
First, some terms.
“Socialism” is when the community owns or controls the means of producing goods or services. The “community” is any level of government, and even most neighborhood or condo associations.
“Democratic socialism” is when the community freely elects its representatives to control the apparatus of government. This is opposed to socialism that’s run by some form of unelected autocracy or dictator.
“Capitalism” is when the means of production is privately owned and operated for a profit. The U.S. is seen as a “capitalistic” country, as distinct from socialistic. But in truth, we’ve never had anything close to pure, unfettered capitalism.
Like cities everywhere, my town of Edina owns and operates Braemar golf and hockey complexes together with baseball and soccer fields, all off-sale liquor outlets, and some very nice parks at Centennial Lakes.
Like everywhere else, Edina has a public school system run by an elected school board, and it has public libraries. When students graduate, some go to publicly owned colleges or universities.
It’s all socialism, and because an elected city council or board is ultimately in control, it’s “democratic socialism.”
Other examples include all branches of the military, all highways, roads and bridges, public parking lots, and ramps; most every airport; public transit such as light rail and buses; parks, forests and wildlife-management areas; the FBI; the Secret Service, and — locally — police, fire, and other first responders. We’ve only started.
Water is made drinkable by purification plants and delivered to homes in a network of underground pipes. Another system of pipes carries away human waste to sewage-treatment plants. It’s all publicly owned, and it’s all “democratic socialism.”
You or someone you know gets Social Security and perhaps Medicare or Medicaid. Or you live in a neighborhood with an elected homeowner’s association. Socialism.
Most see our health care systems as privately owned and capitalistic
But places like the Hennepin County Medical Center are public. And a real kicker: The U.S. operates one of the world’s largest socialistic health systems with the hospitals and all salaried doctors and staff of the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs.
Fly to Phoenix, and the airplane is guided by government air traffic controllers. Take a sip of water or dive into a swimming pool there, and nearly all of it is provided by a government-owned system, including the massive, federally funded Central Arizona Project that brings in Colorado River water through some 300 miles of large canals.
In fact, other desert cities like Tucson, Ariz.; Los Angeles; Reno; Salt Lake City; Las Vegas, and Denver get their water and much of their electrical power from dam and hydro systems operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Mountain ski resorts get electricity from the U.S. Rural Utilities Service.
Socialism, all of it.
Like the American electorate, “democratic socialists” have a healthy disdain for the excesses of capitalism, especially large corporations. And so we have the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and a slew of state laws that tightly regulate how big business must operate. Too, there’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission that actively ensure the safety of drugs, medical devices and how our food is prepared.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates what companies may dump into the common resources of land and water. Public-utility commissions regulate prices that energy companies can charge and, even, where they may build their pipelines and transmission lines.
Of historical interest is how democratic socialism played out in North Dakota when in 1915 the Nonpartisan League (NPL) sought to wrest control from private agricultural interests in Minneapolis. The NPL created the state mill and elevator and state bank; it prohibited corporate farm ownership, and it influenced a progressive tax system — all of which live on in some form. The NPL elected several to statewide office and even a long-serving U.S. senator — the flamboyant “Wild Bill” Langer — before it merged in 1956 with what is still known as the Democratic-NPL Party.
Closer to home, democratic socialism was evident in the 1920s when the University of Minnesota conducted a successful experiment to electrify farms and rural homes around Red Wing, Minn. From there the national Rural Electrification Administration was formed, and lives on as the Rural Utilities Service.
If you’re one of those who says you wouldn’t support a socialist for elective government, you’re too late. Most of you already have and do, and democratic socialism has been broadly popular in Minnesota and the U.S. for a very long time.
A difference now is that Bernie Sanders is calling it by its real name.
Ron Way is a former official with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior. He lives in Edina.