The American Socialist

“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.

Should We Build Confederate Memorials?

I know I’m not the only one who sees the irony in patriotic Americans clinging to hero-worship of the southern Confederacy.  So let’s ask ourselves: should modern Americans be building memorials to Confederate soldiers and their cause?  The Beaumont Enterprise reported yesterday, January 1, 2014, that the Orange City Council approved construction (which is already underway) of a Confederate memorial.  The Enterprise indicated that most people were against the idea of flying a Confederate flag, a tactic that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has used in other locales as well.  To make matters worse, the memorial will be off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  Really?

Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery Courtesy: Arlingtoncemetery.mil/visitorinformation/MonumentMemorials/Confederate.aspx

Sure, it’s a free country, but is it really a good idea to memorialize people who were actual real traitors to the United States of America?  Or would you disagree that Confederates were traitors at all? The Sons of Confederate Veterans apparently disagree. The comparisons sometimes heard of Confederates to Nazis is a pretty thin one, but even from a strictly political standpoint, Confederates rebelled against legal authority, broke the democratic system by resorting to guns when the 1860 Presidential election went against them, and then dragged out a violent war that saw over 700,000 killed.  In addition, I doubt if you asked a Confederate soldier if he considered himself an American soldier (in the U.S. sense) he’d disagree, too.

Even that is not to say that they were “evil.”  But just because some of us are related to Confederates doesn’t mean we have to honor their memory.  As a historian, I love monuments.  I love seeing monuments on battlefields marking unit positions.  I love the old monuments to both sides that add culture and local color to their communities.  I’m not saying we should get rid of old monuments or that we should stop maintaining them.

But should we really be expending efforts to build new memorials to Confederates?  We are not talking about markers signifying spots of historic significance.  Or plaques noting that a building used to be a Confederate factory.  We are talking about a new construction designed specifically to honor rebels against the legitimate government of the United States to uphold slavery.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans recently tried to build a memorial in Virginia, as documented by SCV opponent Kevin Levin on his blog Civil War Memory.  Instead of trying to preserve Confederate memory for historical purposes, they seem to be focused on new construction and creating new memories of the Confederate cause.

One of my ancestors served in the Confederate Army. I find that interesting and would love to learn more about his experiences.  But I could never honor what he fought for, even if it was as legitimate as defending his family and hometown from invasion.  When you build a monument to Confederates you honor what they did overall.  You can’t build a memorial and say it memorializes those noble people who fought for family, not slavery, and pretend like the greater reason isn’t relevant.  A memorial honors the whole shebang.  So at the end of the day, you are indeed building a memorial to people who once fought to preserve slavery and a fairly un-democratic way of life.  Ancestral family or not, we need to accept this and stop perpetuating the myth of an admirable Lost Cause.

On top of all this, the Sons of Confederate Veterans finds a fairly offensive way to go about it.  For a group that insists Confederate heritage is not about racism, they seem to go out of their way to protest and build around areas linked the racial progress.  Building a new memorial right next to Martin Luther King Jr Drive? Now that’s tasteless.

The Myth of Theodore Roosevelt and Health Care Reform

Obamacare.  Is there a word in the English language that splits Americans so fiercely?  Progressive, maybe.  In the 1990s, “liberal” was the derogatory word of choice, but now, thanks largely to Glenn Beck, “progressive” has joined the pantheon of “fascist,” “communist,” and “politician” as a dirty words.  And the grand-daddy of all progressives, Theodore Roosevelt, has been the particular focus of Beck’s wrath.  Once the darling of the Republican Party, Roosevelt’s reform-minded spirit now riles up the neo-populist base with which the Tea Party works.

To make matters worse for old TR, President Obama briefly flirted with comparing himself to the famous reformer during the 2012 Presidential Election.  Since 2009, Democrats have tried–unsuccessfully–to portray Obamacare as an old Progressive Party ideal promoted by Teddy Roosevelt himself. Political pundits and news makers felt that drawing this connection would add legitimacy to a deeply controversial proposal.  In fact, the idea goes back even further.  Dr. Beatrix Hoffman at the NIH wrote an article in 2003 entitled “Health Care Reform and Social Movements in the United States” which highlighted the Progressive Party’s (a.k.a. the Bull Moose Party) 1912 platform’s mention of some kind of insurance for protecting health and home.  President Obama has made the comparison several times in his speeches, too.  But it never became a mainstream part of his message.

The reality is somewhat fuzzier.  Roosevelt never called for health care reform in the sense of Obamacare.  The Progressive Party did, but not really until 1915, after Roosevelt had semi-retired from politics.  In 1912, the mention of healthcare insurance wasn’t really that at all, but instead a mention for federally-backed insurance for workers.  Here is the entire plank:

We favor the union of all the existing agencies of the Federal Government dealing with the public health into a single national health service without discrimination against or for any one set of therapeutic methods, school of medicine, or school of healing with such additional powers as may be necessary to enable it to perform efficiently such duties in the protection of the public from preventable diseases as may be properly undertaken by the Federal authorities, including the executing of existing laws regarding pure food, quarantine and cognate subjects, the promotion of vital statistics and the extension of the registration area of such statistics, and co-operation with the health activities of the various States and cities of the Nation.

That’s the Health plank.  It focuses on the unification under a single organization all of the health interests, but focuses primarily on regulation food safety and record-keeping.

The other plank that mentions health is this:

The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use;

That’s in the segment about labor safety.  Which means some kind of insurance program for those who work and might get sick or injured.  Sounds more like social security or disability than the Affordable Care Act.

On top of this, Obamacare is not an insurance program.  It is a set of reforms that change the way medical data is collected, how healthcare is delivered, but it has no cost controls, and so far it seems as if costs will be going up for almost everyone.  There is no insurance in the sense of unemployment or social security.  All it does is require most Americans to have insurance, paying out of their pocket with some degree of subsidy further down the line.

The issue here is not Obamacare, however, as I don’t want to get overly political one way or the other. My point is to highlight yet another example of how history is distorted for the purposes of politicians on the left and the right.  We can learn a lot from history, but there are limits.  Theodore Roosevelt lived in a very different world in some ways.  While I can’t say he would oppose Obamacare (that would be manipulating history, too) we also cannot say he would support it in its present form.

Similarly it’s ridiculous for critics like Glenn Beck to assail him.  Sure, Roosevelt had some “radical” ideas, but he abhorred socialists and others he deemed as rabble-rousers, he had very conservative ideas about the family and society.  Certainly Beck can find at least enough to agree with Teddy Roosevelt on as he does to disagree with.

All you history-lovers out there, you’re probably big politics junkies like me.  Which means you can get passionate and riled up about what you believe.  Just be careful not to misuse history in your pursuits.  We can always look upon historical events with new perspectives, new evidence and new interpretations, but be careful you are not carelessly misconstruing what you learn for your own political ends.

Bay City’s Riverfront Takes Shape

Over the last 15 years, developers and politicians in Bay City have battled to turn the city into a more attractive place to live.  Their most recent efforts—the Uptown at River’s Edge site and the replacement of the Mill End building with condominiums—are now taking shape.  Now the city commissioners hope to renovate part of Wenonah Park and add a housing development on the west bank of the Saginaw River.

One of the older entertainment landmarks in the city, the Wenonah Park Band shell looks every bit of its thirty years.  On Wednesdays in the summer it hosts local bands and performances and attracts visitors from all over the region. On October 7, the City Commission approved seeking $4,000 through grants to contribute to replacing the roof on the amphitheater.  The total project is estimated to cost $20,000.

On the other side of Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, Uptown at River’s Edge continues development.  The new Dow Corning office building that began construction earlier this spring is looking more and more like the final product.  Another building has sprouted up next to it, and construction crews continue to work as they inch closer to cold weather and snow.

The Bay City Commissioners have also invested heavily in the Uptown project.  They implemented major infrastructure changes, including the addition of sewage lines, streets and burying underwater the Consumer’s Energy cables that once crossed the Saginaw River on tall structures.

Advertisements for Uptown housing have appeared in Great Lakes Bay Magazine, promising upscale living along the riverfront.  A primary concern of citizens seems to be that there is a glut of upscale housing in Bay City, made up primarily of condominiums scattered throughout the downtown area.  There is some concern that there is not enough demand for higher income housing, and that they will remain empty for some time.

Developers dismiss these concerns, and they continue to build on the expectation that people will fill their new homes and turn the Uptown development into a thriving community.

On the other side of the river, across the street from the Wenonan band shell, the remnants of the old Mill End store have given way to the superstructure of a new condominium building.  Citizens express similar concern as to the glut of condo housing, but far less taxpayer money has gone into this development.  As a private investment, some see the construction as risky, but the developer is optimistic the new building will fit with the new look of Bay City’s eastern riverfront.

As things change on the riverfront, most citizens will sit back and hope that the developments work as planned. A vibrant riverfront, all agree, is essential for strengthening the local economy and keeping Bay City a destination location.  Over the next year or two these developments will take shape and it is believed they will bring in hundreds of new jobs.  In the case of Uptown, development will remove a concrete eyesore and make the east side riverfront more attractive.

Presidential History

Can anyone tell me why there are not more Presidential history courses being taught at universities?

Why, after all, is history taught to begin with?  History is taught so that society has some understanding of where they came from. History gives us all context to place current events in, to give us a reference point to process everything thrown at us during every day life.  History connects us with our ancestors, and helps us understand where we are going (if you ascribe to the idea that history is progressing toward some goal).  And, at it’s very basic level, history is entertaining.  The study of Middle Eastern history, for instance, gives Americans a greater sense of why there is so much chaos in the region and what effect different American actions are prone to have.  Knowing about Revolutionary America is to give us a greater sense of our heritage, the successes and failures, moral heights and moral depths of American ideas.  While America has not always been the land of equality and freedom, these are the ideas that have prevailed over all others.  This is who we are.

So why is there no organized study of American leaders?  I know that “Great Men History” is blasé among cultural historians these days, but it still serves an important purpose.  With the Election of 2012 almost upon us, we are faced again with a populace left in the dark about what makes a great President.  Everyone has their gut feelings and opinions, but how many actually build off an understanding of where Presidential history has come from to understand where it is going?

Presidential biographies are big sellers right now, thanks partially to the boom of history fascination in the United States.  But they have always enjoyed some level of success.  History classes focused on presidential history would not only create a group capable of analyzing current presidential politics, it could provide a wealth of new approaches to Presidential history which unfortunately is usually written by journalists.

Is there any value in teaching or learning Presidential history in a college setting?  What are your thoughts?

Last American World War I Vet Calls For War Memorial

The last surviving American World War I veteran (or at least, his daughter is on his behalf) has called for the creation of a memorial to veterans of the Great War.  With the upcoming anniversary of World War I coming soon (2014 for Europe, 2017 for America) such a memorial is necessary.  Honestly, I can’t believe it’s taken this long for such a thing to gain attention.

For those of us who missed out on the war, it was the most devastating in world history.  It often gets short shrift in U.S. textbooks because America did not get involved until the very end of the war, where it played the crucial war in snapping the back of the German war machine.  In virtually every way World War I changed the way the world saw itself.  A generation of young men were murdered and gone, it triggered the rise of Communism and Socialism, sowed the seeds for Naziism, and brought American full throttle into world affairs.  The decades following the war saw America become deeply involved in world leadership, from the League of Nations to nation building in the Caribbean.   The destruction was so terrible that it would take nearly twenty years for many nations to rebound completely.  Germany only paid off her war debts completely this last November (in 2010!).  Literature took a much darker tone, idealism was all but slaughtered on the battlefields of the Low Countries and France.  Nearly 17 million people lost their lives from 1914-1918.

Despite having such a late part to play in the conflict, America should recognize the sacrifice her men and women made for that year.  They traveled far to participate in a war that was not theirs, a war that President Woodrow Wilson had turned into a crusade for democracy.  They faced the deadly weapons of modern warfare on a scale never before seen.  They bravely fought at Bellau Wood,  Cantigny, and the Marne.

Congress, while you’re ignoring the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, at least do the honor of building a memorial for the  millions of Americans who served during World War I.  The last American World War I veteran won’t be alive forever, preserve their memory before it truly does become a “Forgotten War.”

Five of the Most Important Presidential Elections

Everyone loves a Top 10 list, right?  Well, this time you’re getting a Top 5.  Why only five, when there have been so many important United States presidential elections?  Quite frankly because I think when you are formulating a “best of” list you inevitably lose effectiveness if you include too many entries.  So I picked five.

However, I hate hyperbole so I’m not going to try and convince you I’m creating the ultimate, definitive “Most Important Elections Ever” list.  As time goes on we re-interpret past elections and our opinion of their importance is always evolving.  So my list won’t be ranked.  Consider this a discussion piece.  Below is a list of five important Presidential elections in United States history because they had a transformational impact on American politics and society.

The Election of 1800:  America’s Test Vote



Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

 

This election was the first transition of power from one party to another in American history.  It showed the world that such a transition could be done peacefully, if a bit rancorously.  The ultimate battle came down to old friends turned enemies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Of three times in American history where Americans were most polarized (1800, 1860, 2010), this was probably the worst.  John Adams was accused of being a monarchist attempting to destroy American democracy and Thomas Jefferson was accused of wanting to destroy the Constitution in favor of states’ rights and of wanting to bring French Revolution chaos to America.  The Jeffersonian Republicans went head to head with the Federalists in a culmination of years of festering disputes.  It ushered in the era of Jeffersonian republicanism that would dominate for decades and established the conservative philosophy in America that can be traced all the way to current events.

The Election of 1868: Grant Prevents a Second Civil War

President Ulysses S. Grant

 

What?  I didn’t include Lincoln’s election in 1860 or 1864?  It was  a touch decision, but I ultimately opted out of those two elections for a few reasons:  the South was on the way out the door regardless of whether or not Lincoln was elected, and Lincoln’s re-election, while a unexpected (and fortunate) turn of events, wasn’t quite radical enough.  The election following Lincoln’s assassination is a different story.  With the American Civil War still fresh in the minds of voters, and the South under various forms of occupation governments, a spark could have re-ignited the Civil War.  Americans could have voted to end Reconstruction, which inevitably would have eroded any gains in civil rights and restored the South to political dominance.  Instead, they voted war hero Ulysses S. Grant into office.  Under his presidency Reconstruction continued, rights were granted (and protected) to newly freed blacks, and Southern efforts to subvert the government were effectively curbed.  President Grant, despite being tarnished for corruption in his cabinet, effectively led the nation on a positive post-war settlement that made a lot of progress toward creating a modern America.  But unfortunately Reconstruction would ultimately be done in by  our next significant election: 1876.

The Election of 1876: The End of Reconstruction

One Side of the Controversy of the Election of 1876

Showcasing some of the vitriol from the Election of 1876.

 

The 1876 election has to be easily the most controversial Presidential election.  Even moreso than the oft-derided “Decision 2000.”  The progress in civil rights under Grant were swept away after a ridiculously corrupt election deal brokered between Repulicans and Democrats to secure the Presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes, who actually lost the popular vote.   Samuel Tilden, a racist Democrat, was ahead in the polls and electoral votes, but three states were still being decided: South Carolina, Louisiana and America’s most voting-challenged state Florida.  Legend has it that a backroom deal was struck that if given the Presidency Hayes would pull troops out of the South and end Reconstruction.  This is exactly what happened and the freed blacks were basically sacrificed to the racist Democrat wolves who would dominate the South until the 1950s.

The Election of 1980: The Reagan Revolution

President Ronald Reagan in Cowboy Hat

Ronald Reagan, Cowboy in Office

 

1980 transformed the political landscape.  I’ll probably sound like a broken record here so I’ll keep this one short.  Reagan effectively linked the religious right with the fiscal conservatives that would last until the present day.  There’s a possibility that the Tea Party has forced a split in this coalition but that really remains to be seen.  What is undeniable is that Reagan’s election ushered in an era of almost complete Republican domination. Republicans would occupy the White House 20 of the next 30 years, and hold dominance in Congress for many years after 1994.  And if current polls are any accurate indication (which they admittedly are not) Republicans are poised to retake the White House in 2012.

The Election of 2008:  Obama’s Election Backfires

Tea Party Protest "Obamacare" in Washington, D.C.

A sign of the times, the Tea Party protests on Pennsylvania Avenue

 

Despite the rhetoric, there hasn’t been a truly significant election since.  Obama’s was hailed as one but seems to be important for a totally different reason than we first anticipated.  The birth of the Tea Party movement, for good or for bad, is going to transform American politics.   Fresh off their 2010 mid-term election victories, the Tea Party has opened the door for a third party.  Recent polls find Americans more open to voting for a third party than ever before.  I’m not convinced the transformation has happened yet, no matter what the pundits say on the 24/7 news channels.  The Tea Party may have opened the door but it’s up to a third party, like the Modern Whigs, to step through it.  (Full disclosure:  I count myself as a Modern Whig.)