Socialism should not be a scare word in the U.S. Were it not for socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the labor movements organized around his presidential campaigns in the early 20th century, reforms like the 8-hour workday, worker safety protections, women’s suffrage, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, and vacation and sick time would likely never have made it into a major party’s platform. The legacy of this strain of socialism in the U.S. endured, Jill Lepore writes at The New Yorker, “in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society,” all widely supported by self-described liberals.
Yet while socialist policies are broadly popular in the U.S., the word may as well be a writhing, high-voltage wire in mainstream discourse. The same was true in the Reagan 80s, when so many progressive reforms were undone: military spending ballooned, social spending was cut to the bone, and homelessness became a major crisis, exacerbated by the A.I.D.S. epidemic the administration mocked and ignored. In 1989, at the end of the president’s two terms, Ted Turner lobbed the charge of “socialism” at Carl Sagan in a CNN interview. The astrophysicist and famed science communicator refused to take the bait.
Rather than denouncing or distancing himself from socialists, he made it clear that the label was less important to him than the material conditions under which millions of people suffered as a result of deliberate policy choices that could be otherwise. “I’m not sure what a ‘socialist’ is… I’m talking about making people self-reliant, people able to take care of themselves,” he says, in an echo of Debs’ praise of the virtue of “sand.” But this sort of self-reliance is not the same thing as the kind of mythic, Old West rugged individualism of conservatism.
Sagan acknowledges the reality that self-reliance, and survival, are impossible without the basic necessities of life, and that the country has the means to ensure its citizens have them.
I believe the government has a responsibility to care for the people…. There are countries which are perfectly able to do that. The United States is an extremely rich country, it’s perfectly able to do that. It chooses not to. It chooses to have homeless people.
Sagan mentions the U.S. infant mortality rate, which then placed the country at “19th in the world” because of a refusal to spend the money on healthcare needed to save more infant lives. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he says. Instead, billions were allocated to the military, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, called Star Wars: “They’ve already spent something like $20 billion dollars on it, if these guys are permitted to go ahead they will spend a trillion dollars on Star Wars.”
Is objecting to a vast waste of the country’s resources and human potential “socialism”? Sagan doesn’t care what it’s called—the word doesn’t scare him away from pointing to the facts of inequality. The problems have only worsened since then. Military spending has grown to an obscene amount—more than the next ten countries combined. The figure usually given, $705 billion, is actually more like $934 billion, as Kimberly Amadeo explains at The Balance.
“Monopolies have risen again,” writes Lepore, “and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’ lifetime.” Newsweek reports that in 2018, “America’s Health Rankings found that the U.S. was ranked 33rd out of the 36 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for infant mortality.” We have only just begun to reckon with the devastating policy outcomes exposed by the coronavirus. As Sagan would say, these problems are not accidental; they are the result of deliberate choices. We could have a very different society—one that invests its resources in people instead of weapons, in life instead of death. And we could call it whatever we wanted.