Today’s letter is meant to provoke conversation and is a possible explanation about why a “baby-boom” generation feels split and divided in its core beliefs. It is not meant to speak for a generation as a whole, but rather to stimulate debate in an effort to try and find understanding. For many, the term socialism strikes a major chord and elicits strong emotions and feelings. The term has been used to paint candidates such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a negative light and with it seems to carry an anti-American connotation. Candidates and policy makers go through great lengths to avoid flirting with that designation. A prime example is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who holds many of the same beliefs and policy ideas as Sanders, but is adamant that she is not a socialist and that her policies are far from similar to his. I think that there are a lot of reasons to feel strongly about the term socialism and how our society and political will is shaped by our impressions and opinions of this political theory. I would like to discuss them here, but first, I want to be clear what socialism really means, the origin of our fears and some of the policies that might actually do some good, but when labeled as socialistic seem to lose their political will. I also want to say that I’m not advocating or writing this as a pitch for turning our democracy into a communistic society. Rather, the purpose of this letter is to help us clarify and identify where our strong feelings regarding the label of socialism come from. What policies are we already benefiting from that fall under that term and what policies and programs are not yet in existence that might benefit our society today? First however, let’s be sure to define the concepts we will be discussing and debating so that we are all on the same page.
Socialism: a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole (Oxford Dictionary.)
I think that many confuse the idea of socialism with communism, defined below…
Communism: a political theory derived from Karl Marx, a society in which all property is publicly owned, and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs (Oxford Dictionary.)
These two terms are tricky, confusing and easily mixed up or used synonymously which is partly why I think there are so many strong opinions and visceral reactions attached to the two. Communism is most often associated with the economic and political system of Russia and the former Soviet Union (USSR) and has long been seen as a failing political ideology by western countries. Fraught with corruption and political power grabs, the communist system does not lend itself easily to the human condition. However, socialism, an idea that areas of society should be run and regulated by a community or nation as a whole, may be more applicable to certain aspects of the American way of life than is first let on. Public libraries, and public education are both institutions that have civilian oversight from the community and are for the community. The board of education is, among others, a prime example of community regulation over an organization meant for the people. Certainly, the concepts and implementation of socialism are not so straight forward, and these examples can definitely be argued as a gross oversimplification.
My argument here is not that we should convert our democratic system to a Marxist or Lenin era USSR type governance, but rather that we the people should be open to a government for the people and by the people. Not a democracy that seems to serve the few at the top and forget the majority in the middle and bottom. This means programs that are designed to support all citizens from all social classes. Military units such as the Navy Seals and Army Special Forces preach that they are only as strong as their weakest link. A similar metaphor is often used in sports. I would ask then, why do we not apply the same concept to our social structure? Why not take the most pride in how we treat and care for the homeless? The Poor? The Sick? The Young?
It is not a coincidence that a “baby-boom” generation born into fear of a Russian empire and the progression of communism throughout the world during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, has now, in part, become determined to prevent our own political system from adopting so-called socialist ideologies and policy. After all, it is my parents' generation that was doing air-raid drills under their desks as children. The same children were then teenagers, watching the nightly news as Russia placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Those teenagers became young adults sent off to war in Vietnam with a promise that they were there to stop the spread of “the communism” they had watched on TV as children. Then they came home to protests and violence in their streets as social classes began to shift and their political divides were sealed over the bodies of their friends coming home in coffins. This often sowed a deep mistrust of a government that had promised them the war was just. So why should they trust a government to then manage their healthcare and education? When thought of this way, it is easy to see why some of this generation tends to carry fears and absolute abstinence towards policies that get labeled socialist. I think however, that there is a misunderstanding of policies by the government that are designed to help its middle- and lower-class citizens through social safety net programs. This leads to suspicion that these policies are negative in their socialistic roots. A misunderstanding perhaps rooted in a generation that feels misunderstood.
Ask any of these “baby-boomers” if they would like to give up their Medicare or their social security and I would wager that the answer would be no. However, by definition there is no better example of socialism than a universal basic income after the age of 65. Money paid in taxes to the government and then redistributed to the masses. The same idea would apply to the bipartisan COVID-19 stimulus package, passed by congress, that resulted in a check being sent to most Americans. Instead, why not embrace policies that would help all citizens, programs that would provide uplifting forces to our societal “weak-links?” It is easy to see our lower-class as an anchor of sorts, trying to drag down our top and middle-class. It is totally understandable from this viewpoint why a hardworking, middle-class American family would be reluctant to take their hard-earned income and resources, and have it redistributed to something they see as dragging them down. But try and look at this from a different angle…
Instead, what if we looked at the lower-class as the hull to our societal ship, there to keep us afloat, as we are in fact only as strong as our weakest link. So much so, that when there is a puncture or hole in our hull, we all rush to plug and repair it as if it were the only thing keeping us afloat. We are in fact already doing this but in an inadequate and inefficient way. I think that one thing we can all agree on is that if we are going to spend our tax dollars and use our communal resources, we should do it for maximum effect. “If you are going to do something, do it right.” I can hear my parents telling me still to this day, and they can’t have been the only ones to have passed on this wisdom. So then why, I ask, do we “half-ass” programs meant to help others. I think it has to do with the viewpoint we choose to take when looking upon social safety net programs. I think it has to do with the reaction that policy proposals, such as Medicare for all, get when they are labeled socialist. And, I would propose that all of this is partly rooted in fears from a generation born into “cold war.”
In publishing this letter, I felt anxious and nervous about isolating parts of our readership, but I think it is important to have difficult discussions. However, we should forgive the semantics of the terminology of “socialist” policies, after all social security (a beloved and crucial institution) has “socialism” in its name and at its root. Something can be both socialist and democratic. It can be beneficial and fiscally responsible. Instead of continuing our same half in/half out policies, why don’t we address our shortcomings and implement change and structure that would allow us all to float. I would argue that instead of reverting back to the fear of “socialism,” which is really a stand-in for communism and the corruption that led to a war in Vietnam, that we should adopt policies that help us all. Embrace a society that cares for the “true majority” in its lower- and middle-classes rather than continue programs and policies that only work for the top 1%. I think that it is easy to “lament about losing sight of democracy,” as my father would say, “but when do we talk about the will and benefit that everyone can embrace.” He brings up a good point. The power of debate, but also understanding is fundamental to progress. Why don’t we demonstrate the true power of a democracy that can care for all of its citizens and not allow fear to be our most powerful driving force. A concept aptly and easily applied to our political landscape today.
In the interest of keeping lines of communication and debate open, I would love for our readers to reply to this letter with their thoughts. After-all, part of the great adventure of this newsletter is getting to appreciate all sides and viewpoints in both our writing and your responses!
Ben Velardi, Author/Founder