PROSPECT HARBOR — American Nobel laureate and novelist John Steinbeck famously quipped that because the poor do not see themselves as exploited workers but instead as temporarily embarrassed millionaires (“America and Americans,” 1966), socialism is a hard sell in our nation. Many poor Americans are lost in the “birth lottery” – not born into a rich family – so they play Megabucks hoping to put an end to their “temporary embarrassment.”

That may be changing.

Gallup, a polling company, has shown that in 2018, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents preferred socialism over capitalism by a 10-point margin, while a recent Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll survey found that 56 percent of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 favor a “mostly socialist” system. Not surprisingly, during this same time period income inequality has steadily increased in the United States, with President Trump’s only signature policy, so-called “tax reform,” resulted in greater concentrations of wealth among the top 1 percent of the richest Americans, and huge spikes in the nation’s deficit.

The entry of socialist Bernie Sanders into the race to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination comes as Trump and conservative Republicans try to define the entire Democratic Party as “socialist” prior to 2020. For the Republican gerontocracy “Red China” and the Soviet Union were failed state socialist experiments that belong in history’s ash bin, notwithstanding Trump’s embrace of those two nations’ current rulers.

Trump has at least one version of American history on his side. Capitalism, after all, has been the most productive, wealth-generating economic system in history.  And capitalism enjoys a special relationship with democracy – hence the oft-referenced liberal democracy as a descriptor of our political economy – not least because both capitalism and democracy thrive in a culture where citizens are free to try to build their own fortunes. But “try” is the operative word here: Americans are free to build their own treasure chests, yet are also free to fail in the process. What to do about the “temporarily embarrassed” losers? Invoke a kind of social Darwinism to justify the chasm that separates the rich from the poor? And hope the poor passively accept their lot?

Déjà vu all over again.Popular angst over income inequality has historically led to strikes, protests and public demands to address the needs of the poor. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and other socialist programs that redistribute the wealth are policies that ensure a safety net exists, however porous, for capitalism’s losers.

Bernie Sanders was one of the first presidential candidates to understand that the time has arrived to call for “Medicare for All.”  Sanders argues that we should treat health care as a human right rather than as a boon to the profit-driven world of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Likewise with free college tuition as student indebtedness hampers entry into the middle class and a $15 minimum wage. Sanders would tax wealthy corporations and millionaires at a higher rate to pay for these social programs.

If socialism comes to America, it will be be in keeping with America’s slow but relentless journey to foster greater social equality for African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, gays and underpaid workers who have suffered social and economic discrimination under capitalism. To be sure, the road to greater equality is not always smooth and straight, often it is bumpy and crooked, but it can be repaired by providing every citizen with the necessary constitutional liberties to make certain that policy changes are made democratically by the people’s elected representatives. Liberal democracy, in brief, has prepared the way for social democracy.


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