A student at my college told me she’d never visited a national park.

“You ever been to the Badlands?” I asked.

“Who hasn’t?”

“That’s a national park,” I said. “And, I’m afraid, a product of socialism.”

The student had been crabbing to me about Sen. Bernie Sanders and how the s-word would ruin our country.

I said, “When you go to a fountain on campus, are you nervous about the water?”

She shrugged.

I pointed out that the Environmental Protection Agency policed our water — and that it was a “socialist” institution, since we funded it with our taxes and governed it by our votes. I also told her riding the city bus on city roads to college, all the while protected by government laws, looked a lot like socialism to me. Why wasn’t she worried about that? Yet this 78-year-old white-haired democratic socialist who wanted to cut her loans had driven her insane. What gives? Something in the water?

She picked up her books. “This country will never be socialist!” she declared and left my office.

As a founding member of the Socialist Party of the Arrowhead Region (SPAR — since disbanded), I can’t help thinking that tossing these labels like one’s hair is ignorant and dangerous. I often wonder why people don’t even consider a dialogue with Sanders. “He’s a socialist,” say the talking heads. OK. So what? Do these people seriously think Sanders’ socialists will turn the U.S. into the USSR or China?

For my money, no one has come out to provide a clear and simple description of socialism, so here goes: The root of socialism is “social,” meaning “people,” while capitalism is “capital,” meaning “money.” A democratic capitalist cares about money; a democratic socialist cares about people. Is that so hard to understand?

Before you go off thinking I am saying this country cares more about money than people, I’ve got news for you: We’re already a “socialist” country. We care about people. We can’t help it. We’re human. And we ask our government to do a lot of stuff. Here’s a short list: schools, libraries, police and fire departments. Ever wonder who owns the military? Or who pays for our public political servants, including our judges and the president? What if you need a public defender? Simple as that: people over money.

Our socialist government works hard, but what people often forget is that we are the government, and when we pay our taxes each year, we’re granting permission to ourselves to make the best use of our money. And when we vote, we’re exercising our democratic choices, meaning we’re asserting our autonomy in that granting of money even while we oversee what that money does by holding our representatives accountable. Money’s a metaphor but no substitute for people.

Let’s look at the “socialist” health care plan: We vote for the plan, we pay taxes, we get health care. But, instead of paying for insurance and deductibles, our taxes cover funding, so we pay a lower amount. People, not a dollar-centric business, own the system. And our votes govern policy. Capitalism works great when you are creating and buying luxury items like televisions, but when accessing health care, which is a human need, capitalism delimits the clientele mercilessly, undermining the sacred social contract we accept at birth. Socialism endows the individual and society with a transcendent guarantee that celebrates our union since disease (and taxes) is the most galvanizing of human affinities.

Buying carpeting for our homes should be left to the private sector. But what should be left to the public? That’s the interesting question. Imagine not funding our infrastructure, our education system, our police. That would mean people would have to hire private militias to roam their neighborhoods, or they’d have to sit on their doorsteps with guns. I doubt that will happen, especially in the democratic socialist country we’ve already built and are preserving through free and fair electoral systems and reasonable taxes.

So, the next time you visit Yellowstone, Yosemite or Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, remember that you are paying for it, you’re governing it, you own it, and you’re a democratic socialist.

 

Steven Backus, of Cloquet, Minn., is a teacher.