Socialism is as American as apple pie

At a recent luncheon, I got involved in a political discussion where I disagreed with the stance taken by another guest. That person said that what he was advocating was required by capitalist principles, and acted as if that settled it. I told him that I was a socialist and not a capitalist so I did not accept his premises. He seemed shocked and said that since America was a capitalist country, I had no choice but to accept it.

This view is common. One of the big points of attack that the media makes against Bernie Sanders is that he calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’ and they suggest that Americans see socialism as not only some kind of foreign ideology but downright dangerous and antithetical to everything that America stands for. In fact, whether Americans would ever vote in a socialist for president was a question that was posed by moderator Anderson Cooper directly to Sanders in the debate.

But is it true that socialism is unthinkable in the US?

Historian Bernard Weisberger says that while he liked the spirited response that Sanders gave to that skeptical question, he could have gone further to show that socialism is solidly within the American political tradition going all the way back to the Pilgrims.

Weisberger wrote out his own reply to the question:

Well, first of all, the last I heard Vermont was still an American state and the people of Burlington elected me as mayor four times and were satisfied because I gave them an honest and efficient administration. Then the people of the state as a whole sent me back to the House of Representatives several times, and next to the Senate. They responded to substance, not labels. I think we’re still smart enough to do that.

[As for our not being Denmark, I am not trying to turn the United States into Denmark or any other country in the world. But if we look and see that Denmark has a health care system that treats its people better than ours at lower cost, just as an example, are we forbidden to try it because it hasn’t got a “Made in America” label on it? We’re a lot smarter than that — and saying otherwise is a slander on our people.]

I consider myself a social democrat, yes. And for me, what social democracy simply means is a system that leaves room for small enterprises and individual liberty but also recognizes the fact that we’re all part of a larger community, and what hurts any one group of us eventually hurts us all. So there are some things we don’t leave to the so-called free market. We don’t want people going hungry or suffering from sickness or at the bottom of the ladder in educational attainments because they can’t afford them — especially when in economic downturns millions of us lose jobs through no fault of our own. So we tax ourselves to put money into a common kitty to make sure those things don’t happen and we’re all the better off for it. In other words we agree to bear each others’ burdens and make others’ suffering our concern, bound in “brotherly affection.” A far cry from the virtues of unrestricted and unregulated winner-take-all competition.

And do you know that that’s a basic American idea? What I just said comes straight from a sermon preached by minister John Winthrop to the band of fellow Puritans landing in Massachusetts in 1634. And it’s an idea picked up again and again throughout our history, from early state laws providing for public health and safety and punishing fraud, right on through to the Progressive period and the New Deal when we provided security for our elders, strengthened the bargaining power of workers, created public works programs to stimulate employment and spending, opened space for small business by breaking trusts, and reduced inequality to reasonable levels — without touching the basics of capitalism. That’s the American way and always has been, and I could name a long list of American heroes who embraced it if there were time. So let’s move past labels and start addressing the crises we face now.

Socialism is woven deep into the fabric of American society. What Republicans want to do is not prevent it but roll it back.


  1. doublereed says

    I’m happy that the stigma of the word socialist is going away. Bernie’s answer was strong and powerful.

    Although I’ve never really understood what people by socialism. Do they just mean a social safety net? Do they mean healthcare as a right? Something like Universal Basic Income? Do they mean having a significant number of worker-owned companies or benefit corporations? It seems to me like all of these things can easily exist in a capitalist society.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    In my state, Virginia, the entire business of selling hard liquor is entirely run by the state government. There is still resistance to changing that. So apparently socialism is fine and dandy when it’s in the service of a social goal favored by conservatives — even though it isn’t even today’s conservatives, but conservatives from decades ago. Personally, I’d love to see that sector become privatized and subject to capitalist laws of supply and demand.

    The place where I’d like to apply socialism is in industries where there is an inherent monopoly due to the nature of the product. But if you dare to suggest that perhaps utilities should make decisions in the best interests of their ratepayers, or hospitals in the best interests of their patients, rather than both being governed by the bottom line for their stockholders — ack! Communism!

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Speaking of socialism, Jeb Bush recently offered his version of a health care plan. Depending on which news outlets you favor, this plan would “undo”, “dismantle”, “repeal” or “replace” Obamacare. Consider the last, which is the most honest presentation. It is an admission that Obamacare needs replacing; i.e. that it is doing something worthwhile. That is something no Republican has been willing to admit until now.

  4. Chiroptera says

    I should also point out (sorry for the repetition) that even though Sanders may be a socialist, none of the policies that he advocates are particularly socialist. Everything he is proposing remains within an economic system where the means of production remains in private ownership, and the owners will continue to earn profits from their businesses which may or may not be shared with the workers.

  5. says

    Capitalist principals only make sense if one is one of those who is taking advantage of capitalism. Since capitalism is _inherently_ unbalanced toward the capitalist, the capitalist must accept that they are being unfair. Saying “the US is capitalist” is simply acknowledging “the US is unfair.” Yes. So?

  6. moarscienceplz says

    Socialism is obviously a terrible thing. In fact, since Fox “News” viewers are a median 68.8 years old, i think they should inspire us ignorant liberals to shun evil socialism by tearing up their Social Security checks every month. Since they are Conservatives and therefore much better money managers than us progressive slobs, they all are rich enough to have no need of that money, right?

  7. moarscienceplz says

    I wish we had a chance to quiz Anderson Cooper about his point that Denmark has only 5 million people. So? Does he think that an economy of 5 million people is qualitatively different from an economy of 300 million people? He might as well have said that Denmark is a country where they eat more herring per capita than America. Hey! Maybe that’s the secret! Fish is supposed to be brain food, so maybe Danes are smarter than Americans and THAT’S why they are Socialist and we can’t be.

  8. Mano Singham says

    doublereed @#1,

    What people mean by socialism varies. As Chiroptera @#4 is careful to point out, Sanders is not really a socialist in the classical sense of the term whereby at least the major means of production are publicly owned. But he is careful to say that he is a ‘democratic socialist’ and that means something different.

    It means, at minimum the idea of health and education as a right for all and are either free or at such minimal cost that no one is barred, such as having free public schools and colleges and a single payer health care system; a good social safety net that enables old people to live reasonably comfortable lives; family friendly policies such as affordable child care and parental leave; and good unemployment benefits. All these would be paid for by a highly progressive income tax structure.

    His use of Denmark and other Scandinavian countries is a shorthand way of saying all that and that we have working models of democratic socialism.

  9. Knight in Sour Armor says

    Four more words: The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

    The at the end is pretty forced and dry (better than Rand at least), but the book was intended to demonstrate the evils of capitalism and the virtues of socialism.

  10. says

    Can I just point out that being a social democrat and a democratic socialist is not the same thing. The social democrat parties in Europe don’t consider themselves socialist, and are usually considered towards the middle of the political spectrum (though on the left side)

  11. jimmyfromchicago says

    It was disappointing--although not surprising--to hear Hillary Clinton claim in the most recent Democratic debate that the capitalist system created the American middle class. As Paul Krugman explains here, the creation of the middle class in the United States was largely the result of the New Deal (and the decline of the middle class is politically driven, too). Right now, on economic issues, the Democrats stand for the things the Republican Party used to, occupying the space in the road vacated when the Republicans took their hard right turn off a cliff.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    I told him that I was a socialist and not a capitalist so I did not accept his premises.

    Needs a minor fix.

  13. parasiteboy says

    Democratic Socialist does not equal Social Democrat. They are two different things and Bernies policies are the latter not the former. Democratic Socialist is where the government would have control over the means and amount of production, it would just be that the government is democratically elected. Whereas Social Democracy is the implementation of social services, like universal health care and free education along with the social safety nets.
    The only thing on the Socialism spectrum that I have seen Bernie advocate are co-op worker owned businesses.
    I am honestly not sure Bernie knows the difference and since he labels himself a Democratic Socialist, but wants us to be more of a Social Democracy. To be fair I was confused with the terms until recently.

  14. Lesbian Catnip says

    “Is Socialism American?” Is a banal question. I can’t fathom how that question matters as much as, say, “does it work?”

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    We do not have a pure capitalist economy. Pure capitalism means 5-year-olds working in coal mines. We rejected that long ago.

  16. Reginald Selkirk says

    I have heard that the Oz books of L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz, etc. The entire series is ~15 books) is pro-socialist, but I haven’t read them myself.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    At times, I tend to favor the right wing’s definition of “socialism”.

    When states began banning child labor and mandating attendance at public schools, they cried “Socialism!”

    As Teddy Roosevelt broke up (some) industrial cartels and established national parks -- “Socialism!”

    The government started inspecting and regulating what could go into foods, drugs, & cosmetics: “Socialism!”

    FDR launched Social Security, promoted labor unions, and limited war profiteering: “That damn socialist!”

    Eisenhower created interstate highways: “Socialism!”

    LBJ instituted desegregation, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid: “Socialism!”

    Even Obama’s half-assed expansion of capitalist health insurance produced screams of the S-word.

    All those programs now have massive public support, and removing them would wreak major harm on the national economy (cases in point, the consequences of the recent partial undoing the latter two FDR projects mentioned above).

    The anti-socialists have made socialism look pretty damn good.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reginald Selkirk @ # 18: … the Oz books of L. Frank Baum …

    The first, The Wizard of Oz, included a populist (more so than socialist) political critique: the Tin Man representing factory workers, the Scarecrow embodying farmers, the Cowardly Lion a parody of populist icon William Jennings Bryan, etc. Baum denied that “Oz” stood for an abbreviation of “ounce” (and thus an allusion to the major national economic dispute of the time, gold vs silver as monetary backing), but few believed him.

    So far as I have read, all of the sequels lack that dimension, and were written purely as entertainment.

  19. Reginald Selkirk says

    Pierce R. Butler #19: and removing them would wreak major harm on the national economy

    Pingback to my comment #3 above: Already a Republican has acknowledged that Obamacare needs to be replaced by something, not just wiped out entirely.

  20. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham, #8: …Sanders is not really a socialist in the classical sense of the term whereby at least the major means of production are publicly owned.

    Well, it may very well be that Sander is a Socialist in the sense that I use the word; I always assumed that he’s advocating policies that are merely left-wing liberalism because he knows that the US voters would not vote for an actual socialist platform and this is the best he could hope for. Also, maybe, he doesn’t feel that one can jump into socialism all at once, and this is the necessary first step.

    I do consider myself a socialist, and if I were running for President, the policies Sanders is advocating would be the ones I would as well. (Actual, I don’t think I’d be as brave; I’d have probably even run a campaign slightly to the right of what Sanders is doing. I have a lot of respect for Sanders for showing that such a liberal platform is far more workable than I would have thought.)


    But he is careful to say that he is a ‘democratic socialist’ and that means something different.

    I agree with parasiteboy in #15: Sanders isn’t running a “democratic socialist” campaign either.

    However, in the last couple of decades, I have seen an increasing trend where the current systems in Scandinavia are being called “democratic socialism” rather than the older (and, in my opinion, more correct) “social democracy.” And since I’m a big believer that the meanings of words are determined by how people actually use them, I fear that I may have lost this battle (although I’m going to continue to resist for a while).

  21. Chiroptera says

    That person said that what he was advocating was required by capitalist principles, and acted as if that settled it.

    It could be that he really did mean “capitalist,” but I’m going to make a guess that your friend really meant “free market,” which is what most Americans mean most of the time they use the word “capitalism.” The confusion between “capitalist” and “free market” seems especially pronounced among those who worship at the Church of the Invisible Hand.

  22. atheistblog says

    StevoR says ” I am still a baby”, desperate to convince others how stupid you are. Just grow up Steveo”jingo”R.

  23. flex says

    A couple years ago a commentor on Pharyngula recommended David Hackett Fisher’s book, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

    I bring it up now because one of the important points this books makes is that there are significant cultural differences in the regions of the US which were populated by different waves of British immigrants.

    One of the more interesting differences was between the conception of community between the Quakers settling the North-East and the Scottish Borderers settling in the middle-South and West. Whereas the Quakers believed in, and created a culture of community support which still exists in the North-East, the Scottish Borderers believed in and a created a culture of autonomous individuals; which may rely on family but rarely on their community for support. Being supported by the community was seen as a personal failure in this culture.

    Being written before the internet age the conclusions may not reflect the current rapid cultural exchange which is occurring among much of the youth of America, but it does offer some explanation of how and why some cultures within the U.S. are so adamantly against government social programs while other embrace them. It’s worth a read.

  24. Friendly says

    @Reginald #18 and @Pierce #20: I don’t know whether either of you will see this, given that this post is already four days old, but here goes: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as much to provide good, non-moralistic entertainment as any of Baum’s other Oz books (or other children’s fantasies); Baum says as much in his introduction to the work. Interpretations of the book as a populist allegory were never made by anyone until 1964 and didn’t become, well, popular until the early 1990s. It’s certainly possible to assign populist symbology to almost every element of the book in order to use it as a tool to provide instruction about the American fin de siècle (which can be a difficult era to teach about), but the idea that Baum intended the story to be allegorical — Baum despised allegories, BTW — has no evidence to support it.

  25. kaleberg says

    The US has a long socialist tradition. Our taking of land from its original owners and giving it to anyone willing to farm it was where Marx got the idea for land reform.


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