After spending most of my adult life in various Eastern and Western European countries, I returned to the US just before the turn of the twenty-first century. I had spent several periods here in previous decades, always wondering why Americans were the only highly developed people who were told nothing about the democratic socialism that reigned across the Atlantic — and in most other parts of the world. I continued to wait, but the word socialism continued to be absent from the media.
It wasn’t until Bernie Sanders defied custom to declare himself a democratic socialist in the 2016 election, that most Americans first heard the notion praised: Sanders was prevented from being the Democratic candidate by more or less blatant Party maneuvers in favor of Hillary Clinton, ensuring the arrival in the White House of a man now accused of white supremacy and mob behavior.
While information about socialism and even social-democracy has continued to be withheld since Trump’s inauguration more than two years ago, within days of the president’s failure to condemn white supremacy after 50 Muslim worshippers were gunned down in New Zealand by a man who admitted being inspired by him, the widely watched ‘Morning Joe’ invited a highly credentialed figure to reveal the realities of democratic socialism to its audience. None other than Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who directs Columbia’s Earth Institute for Sustainable Development, was brought in to reveal the truth to its upscale audience.
He told them in no uncertain terms that the top-ranking countries on the World Happiness Report, produced by the U.N Sustainable Development Solutions Network, are once again the Nordic countries. (The report ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens consider themselves, based on economic wealth, life expectancy, social support and freedom to make life choices.) Americans have often heard of the Nordic countries with respect to overall well-being, but their daily reality has never been spelled out — anymore than the fact that all of Europe, and many other parts of the world, long ago adopted social-democracies basic principals: single payer medical care from cradle to grave, plentiful vacations, and many other supports that enable populations to keep stress at a minimum.
While most Americans get two weeks off a year, with a few stingy ‘sick days’ thrown in, and are only now being exposed to the idea of ‘Medicare for All’, which dares not expel for-profit insurers from the health-care market, Sachs revealed that social benefits they can only dream of have been taken for granted basically since the end of World War II in Europe. (When I lived in Italy in the late fifties, most workers could look forward to a ‘thirteen month’, an extra thirty days of vacation on top of the mandated month.)
It was the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt a few months before V-Day, that determined America’s trajectory, and interestingly, the invitation to Jeffrey Sachs came barely a week after the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, declared himself to be a social democrat and a follower of FDR.
Since 1917, except when the four-term American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to his Russian ally as ‘Uncle Joe’, equity has been the bone of contention between the US and Russia, and the Presidential Election campaign that follows ‘Russiagate’ revolves around this separation from the rest of the world. What happened was that Roosevelt’s untimely death delivered US foreign policy into the hands of the right-wingers who had forced on Roosevelt as his running mate for his exceptional fourth term Harry Truman (in the midst of a two-front war), a hat-maker from Missouri, instead of the Progressive former Republican Henry Wallace that he wanted. That switch sealed the fate of American socialism for 75 years.
In his State of the Union of January 6, 1941, almost a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor that finally brought the US into World War II against Germany, Japan and Italy, Roosevelt sought to establish a fair basis for the sacrifices the population would be called upon to make. It became known as the Four Freedoms speech (freedom of speech freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear), however, in the 80 years since, only the first two freedoms, which are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, have been guaranteed. Want and fear have continued to characterize the American population, enabling aggressive wars that consume the money needed for single payer health care.
“a free nation has the right to expect full cooperation from all groups,” Roosevelt told business leaders they must lead the war effort. “However, since men do not live by bread alone, do not fight by armaments alone. ….they must have the stamina and courage which come from an unshakable belief in the way of life they are defending. The mighty action we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all things worth fighting for. These are:
Equality of opportunity
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privileges for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”
To make sure his point was understood, Roosevelt added: “These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.”
And he delivered, making more citizens eligible for retirement and unemployment benefits, widening the opportunities for adequate medical care and improving opportunities for work. Taking the bull by the horns, he admitted that his program implied higher taxes, adding: “Taxes in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.”
And he didn’t stop there: translating freedom from fear into what he called ‘world terms’, he recognized that it requires a world-wide reduction of armaments “to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.” Four years before Eleanor Roosevelt founded the United Nations, her husband declared that: “The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.” Eighty years after this ground-breaking speech, having fought a dozen aggressive wars and used color revolutions and drones to ensure that the world’s people serve the few, the United States continues to disown not only socialism, but Russian President Putin’s and Chinese President Xi’s call for ‘a multi-polar world’.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years. She can be reached at Otherjones. Especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.