“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
With those words, President Trump tried to define the American mission as one against an ideology that has a surprisingly long and deep home in the American experience. Far from being some alien ideology home only in authoritarian regimes and failed states, socialism in some form or another has shaped American life just as much as capitalism. While the traditional American dream has, admittedly, been the pursuit of wealth, there has always been an equal pull towards social justice. The pursuit of wealth, at least publicly, has often been about destroying poverty. A common refrain among thinkers on the right is the mantra “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Socialism in America, then, is merely the recognition that pure capitalism has always failed to really address the root causes of poverty and other societal ills. American socialism and American capitalism are two approaches to solving the same problems. For every critique of socialist politicians living wealthy lives there is an equal critique of wealthy capitalists hoarding their fortunes and not donating to charities or contributing to society while claiming the private citizen could do a better job of eliminating economic issues than government programs. But here’s the real deal: both sides are right, and both sides are wrong.
America is, has been and always should be a mixed economy. Far from having a national mission to become purely capitalist, this nation has only thrived when it embraced both private enterprise and government assistance. The Constitution gave the government power to build and maintain roads and a national military (an idea many Americans took issue with for a generation or more). As the nation grew larger and its economy more complex a national program known as the American System was championed by Henry Clay was developed to ensure market access to the new states and territories to the north and west via rivers, canals and railroads. Most famously, perhaps, was the government subsidies of the rail system. While this was a highly corrupt partnership between corporations and government, it enabled the North to win the Civil War and enabled the modernization and industrialization of the latter 19th Century. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered up public land for settlers at massively discounted prices to encourage the development of Native American lands. Government legislation ended child labor. After a company recklessly poisoned over one hundred people with sulfanilimde in 1937, the Food and Drug Administration received new enforcement powers and began really regulating how companies produced commercial products that could harm consumers. Out of the New Deal came Social Security, the social safety net that millions of Americans rely on in their retirement years. More recently the government developed the Internet which transformed the world we live in.
Where would America be without at least some degree of socialism?
All these notes aside, America’s history is not a socialist one alone. Capitalism has often defined how Americans see themselves. Capitalism and socialism must act as checks on each other, much like the branches of government in the U.S.
In short, President Trump is wrong about our need to prevent socialism from taking root. It’s already here, and we’re the better for it. The key is to walk the line and maintain the precious balance of a mixed economy that pragmatically (and not ideologically) addresses the pressing needs of a nation undergoing rapid transformation.