How Socialists Built America
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That did not just happen by chance. A young writer who had recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism left the fold of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to join the Young People’s Socialist League. Michael Harrington wanted to change the debate about poverty in America, and perhaps remarkably or perhaps presciently, he presumed that attaching himself to what was left of the once muscular but at that point ailing Socialist Party was the way to do so. In a 1959 article for the then-liberal Commentary magazine, Harrington sought, in the words of his biographer, Maurice Isserman, “to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived ‘below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.’”
Harrington succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The article led to a book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which became required reading for policy-makers, selling 70,000 copies in its first year. “Among the book’s readers, reputedly, was John F. Kennedy, who in the fall of 1963 began thinking about proposing antipoverty legislation,” recalls Isserman. “After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the issue, calling in his 1964 State of the Union address for an ‘unconditional war on poverty.’ Sargent Shriver headed the task force charged with drawing up the legislation and invited Harrington to Washington as a consultant.”
Harrington’s proposals for renewal of New Deal public works projects were never fully embraced. But his and others’ advocacy that government should intervene to address the suffering of those who couldn’t care for themselves or their families underpinned what the author described as “completing Social Security” by providing healthcare for the aged. It urged on the Johnson administration’s Great Society, including the Social Security Act of 1965—or Medicare. Johnson took his hits, but Americans agreed with their president when he argued that “the Social Security health insurance plan, which President Kennedy worked so hard to enact, is the American way; it is practical; it is sensible; it is fair; it is just.”
Could a plan decried as “socialized medicine” by the American Medical Association because it was, in fact, socialized medicine really be “the American way”? Of course. During the Medicare debate in the early ’60s, Texas Senate candidate George H.W. Bush condemned the proposal as “creeping socialism.” Ronald Reagan, then making the transition from TV pitchman for products to TV pitchman for Barry Goldwater, warned that if it passed citizens would find themselves “telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” But Bush and Reagan managed the program during their presidencies, and Tea Party activists now show up at town hall meetings to threaten any legislator who would dare to tinker with their beloved Medicare.
Americans would not have gotten Medicare if Harrington and the socialists who came before him—from presidential candidates like Debs and Thomas to organizers like Mary Marcy and Margaret Sanger and the Communist Party’s Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—had not for decades been pushing the limits of the healthcare debate. No less a player than Senator Edward Kennedy would declare, “I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America.” The same was true in abolitionist days, when socialists—including friends of Marx who had immigrated to the United States after the 1848 revolutions in Europe were crushed—energized the movement against slavery and helped give it political expression in the form of the Republican Party. The same was true early in the twentieth century, when Socialist Party editors like Victor Berger battled attempts to destroy civil liberties and defined our modern understanding of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to petition for redress of grievances. The same was true when lifelong socialist A. Philip Randolph called the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and asked a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., who had many socialist counselors besides the venerable Randolph, to deliver what would come to be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.