The textbook definition of Socialism is “an economic and political theory, advocating public or common ownership, as well as the cooperative management, allocation and distribution of resources.” Current socialist parties existing in the United States include the Socialist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, the latter boasting approximately 10,000 members. Despite the longtime existence of these organizations, the modern socialist movement did not get much attention in the United States until the 2009 election of our current president, Barack Obama. Since then “socialism” has become one of the most inflammatory and misused words in our political vocabulary.
Initially, the term was commandeered by the conservative movement, primarily made up of Republicans, to be used as an accusatory campaign tactic. This was in direct response to the then Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s comments alluding to the expansion of government intervention and redistribution of wealth. It was later used to christen the counter-argument against the Obama Administration’s proposed changes such as government-funded bailouts and universal health care reform. Today it has become a permanent moniker used by the right when describing the president and his liberal policies. Unfortunately, it is also misused continually by Tea Party members, disgruntled GOP supporters and conservative political commentators alike.
I was surprised to find that more than a few political scholars maintain that true socialism was in fact, democratic in nature. Proponents of the system add that it properly prioritizes human needs, thus benefiting a broader stretch of the population. Additionally, many citizens who identify themselves as being on the left, support the notion of incorporating a socialist agenda into the country’s fledgling capitalist system. At the same time political traditionalists and Republican nay Sayers passionately protest the concept and liken it to oppressive forms of government including communism and fascism. Both arguments have merit.
As the country moves further ahead into the president’s first term, little change appears to have manifested on either side of the aisle. In fact, things are worse in some instances as neither party seems able to work together for the betterment of their constituents. Solidarity and compromise are now foreign concepts and the very essence of the two-party system appears to be failing. Yet it is the great debate over socialism that continues to dominate the discussion. It is a winless argument, instrumental in fanning the flames of discontent, and furthering the divide between liberals and conservatives.
Perhaps that is why I was even more surprised to find that some academics are preaching that the concept of American-socialism is nothing new, nor is it contrary to many of the Founding Father’s principles. Mark Brown, holder of the Newton D. Baker/Baker and Hostetler Chair at Capital University School of Law, says that in the midst of the current furor over health care reform legislation we should remember that America's own revered Founding Fathers authorized, and sometimes embraced socialist-like philosophies. In an editorial posted on JURIST he writes, “Many of our Founding Fathers were socialists. They believed that essential services should be provided by government to the public at large for little or no remuneration. The costs of these services would be shared by the whole. This, by most modern accounts, is socialism.”
Several historical quotes have been used repeatedly in these kinds of commentaries to support the notion that although they were not in favor of a total socialist system, some Founders did support the overall principle and as a result, the foundation of which our nation operates has socialist influence and flavor. (That ought to piss the Tea Party off.) Two individuals who are credited with sharing this mindset were Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
In his 1797 pamphlet titled Agrarian Justice, Thomas Paine outlined the concept for a nationwide account (like Social Security) that would be distributed among the people. He wrote: “[I shall] Create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling as a compensation in part for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum for life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.”
In 1811, Jefferson penned a letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko that outlined the concept of spreading wealth around to those less fortunate. He wrote: “The rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied... Our revenues liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, &tc., the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone - without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”
It is important to note that these quotes may be taken out of context. Personally, I don't think the Founders were what we would consider today to be Socialists. I don't believe the current administration is either. That said, I do think that we are just beginning to see what kind of long-term damage partisan stubbornness in government can do. Change is certainly needed. Whether it can be achieved through the broadening of political ideologies remains to be seen. Perhaps by re-examining our history and the diversity of our Founder's principals we can come to some kind of compromise that will be in the best interests of the country instead of the best interests of the politicians.