The Opinion Pages | Contributing Op-Ed Writer
Guess Who Else Is a Socialist?
One of the side benefits of a well-watched national political debate is the exposure it brings to something obscure and forgotten — like Denmark. Who doesn’t love a country that gave us a dish of frikadeller and rugbrod to go with paid parental leave and universal health care?
“I love Denmark,” said Hillary Clinton during Tuesday’s debate, by way of dismissing a quasi-socialist nation of 5.7 million mostly white people as not the best place to look for solving the problems of a multiethnic democracy of 322 million.
But in fact, the United States may be closer to Denmark than many think. In the reddest of red states — say, Idaho — you can find the kind of socialism, through publicly owned utilities or the federal dam that farmers rely on for their water, that would be right at home among aquavit-sipping Danes.
Once you label something socialist, it brings to mind dour Soviet types trotting out dreary worker clothing for the spring fashion line. Or, here at home, those insufferable parlor room Marxists who think it would be utopia if only we nationalized every Starbucks. In that sense, the worst thing about socialism is the socialists.
Free of the label, a hybrid economy where health care, education and pensions for the elderly are provided, side-by-side-by-side with creative capitalism, works pretty well in the Nordic countries, Britain and Canada. And most of the tenets of what is considered democratic socialism have majority support in the United States.
But “socialism” as a word is poison in this country, except among the young, in large part because it’s associated with failed authoritarian Marxist states. A recent Gallup poll found that half of Americans would not vote for a socialist. More people said they could accept an atheist as president than someone with the scarlet S.
So we don’t like “them.” But we do like many of their ideas. We can thank Senator Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed democratic socialist, for this healthy debate. This week, Donald Trump called him a “communist.” If so, you can find broad public support for most of the things advocated by the commie from Brooklyn.
A majority of Americans feel “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed,” according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Sanders wants to raise the minimum wage; so do 71 percent of Americans. Sanders believes corporations have too much influence on politics, as do 74 percent of Americans. And one of the biggest socialist programs — the single payer Medicare system that is a lifeline to more than 50 million people — is also one of the most popular.
Nearly one in four people in this country gets electricity from a consumer-owned or co-op utility — socialism throughout the heartland. And when President Obama considered privatizing a big government utility and dam operator, the Tennessee Valley Authority, he was met with squawks of protest from some of the most conservative precincts in America.
Obama is no socialist. A socialist would have nationalized General Motors, instead of returning it to capitalistic solvency. A socialist would not have presided over a doubling of the stock market, without adding significant new taxes to Wall Street’s biggest beneficiaries.
Capitalism at its best gives us iPhones and 400 kinds of ice cream and rewards enterprise and innovation. The free market has no small amount of magic. At its worst, capitalism produces pharmaceutical companies that gouge for lifesaving drugs, insurance companies that drop people once they get sick, and a system where secretaries pay a higher percentage of their earnings in taxes than billionaires who do nothing.
Socialism at its best can run an army, a health care system and provide quality education for those who otherwise couldn’t afford one. Libraries and fire departments are socialist institutions. So is the Interstate System of highways created under President Eisenhower. Ditto the nation’s most popular cultural enterprise, the National Football League, which shares its television billions with losers among the teams. At its worst, socialism is grim and stifling, a dead-end for creativity.
The key is to find a balance, as Hillary Clinton said in Tuesday’s debate. “Our job is to rein in the excesses of capitalism so it doesn’t run amok,” she said. In that sentiment, you could hear the historical echo of two great progressive presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin, both of whom sought to save capitalism from itself.
She also said, “We are not Denmark.” Nope. Not by any stretch. Denmark has a slightly higher tax load on its citizens than the United States. But it also has budget surpluses, universal health care, shorter working hours, and was recently rated by Forbes magazine as the best country in the world for business.