When twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an avowed Democratic Socialist, in July defeated 10-term Democratic congressman Joe Crowley in the New York primary election, fears of a socialist takeover of the country came front and center once again. Ocasio-Cortez’s own party was not completely supportive. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic minority leader of the House pf Representatives, dismissed her win as a “local phenomena,” and former President Barack Obama did not include Ocasio-Cortez among the list of 81 candidates he was endorsing.
Why are so many Americans afraid of socialism? Why do they resist promoting the needs and welfare of all Americans rather than protecting the profits for a small group of wealthy citizens?
Perhaps socialism is repugnant not for theoretical reasons but for deeply held historical stereotypes about who is deserving of assistance from the government. Currently, 44 million Americans - 15 percent of the U.S. population - are enrolled in Medicare, the U.S. brand of socialized medicine. Socialism is practiced in Canada, Europe, and Scandinavia without Americans feeling its domino effect, so what is the real fear? The belief that certain undesirable others might benefit is reason enough for a majority of Americans to turn their backs on a system from which they could themselves benefit.
A form of socialism was practiced when the 1944 G.I. Bill was passed. The G.I. Bill was aimed at helping WWII veterans adjust to civilian life by providing them with housing, educational, and financial support. That bill helped millions of returning veterans go to college and buy homes, which prompted the great postwar suburban land rush. By offering college tuition and low-interest home loans to millions of white veterans, the GI Bill significantly expanded the white middle class – some understand that it made the middle class -- and subsequently fostered a long-term boom in white wealth for decades after World War II.
African Americans were not as lucky to benefit from the G.I. Bill. Historian Ira Katznelson argues that the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow. African American veterans were not able to make use of the housing provisions of the GI Bill for the most part. Banks generally wouldn't make loans for mortgages in black neighborhoods, and African Americans were excluded from the suburbs by a combination of deed covenants and informal racism. Rather than the benefits of socialism for veterans, despite their service to the country, African Americans faced discrimination and poverty.
Almost one million African Americans served in WWII; however, they faced barriers in using their educational benefits because most southern universities refused to admit African Americas. By 1946, only one-fifth of the 100,000 African Americans who had applied for educational benefits were registered in a college because of segregation or the lack of resources of the colleges where they applied. The assistance provided by the G.I. Bill was to lift veterans into middle-class status, but what happened is that the educational and economic gap between blacks and whites widened.
The “forty acres and a mule” promised to formerly enslaved Africans and African Americans after the Civil War ended in 1865 was denied by elites and government officials; they used racist stereotypes of the “idle Negro” to establish blacks as being undeserving of government assistance. Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, suggested that assistance to poor men, and even to poor white southerners, would be a handout to lazy people paid for by hardworking white men. This same sentiment was echoed in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan’s racist and persistent message about “welfare queens.” Now the underserving are immigrants, poor whites, and most people of color. This message of lazy blacks and underserving others wanting something for nothing still resonates in the minds of those who will use the pseudo argument of contempt for socialism to deny even themselves a better life.
Ocasio-Cortez has a wish list of transformative actions for America. Among those most likely to be perceived as socialist are: Medicare for all; free higher education and trade school for all; housing as a human right; and a universal job guarantee with a $15 minimum wage pegged to inflation. If you have no thoughts of undeserving others receiving the benefits, think about these points:
How would you like to be able to get adequate medical care without concern about it bankrupting you or your family?
How much more comfortable would you be knowing that those who prepare and serve your food, wait on you in stores, or care for your children are free from disease because they have adequate healthcare? How might you, your children, and your grandchildren benefit from being free of college loans that stifle their economic progress?
How might you, your family, and society benefit from an adequately educated populace?
How would your children or grandchildren benefit from being able to secure a loan for affordable workforce housing?
How much safer would you be and how much less would it cost you in taxes if all workers made a livable wage?
How would you view the humanity and greatness of this nation if you knew that no family was forced to sleep in the woods or go to sleep hungry?
Taking a totally selfish approach, so what if a few that you consider undeserving get a little? You will be protected. There is currently a tenseness and anxiety that is palpable among Americans. Every day, your neighbors - college grads, workers, the elderly - too many citizens are suffering in this very rich country. Our government can be made accountable to its people. Democratic Socialism might be the way our nation prevents a dooming class warfare.