America’s issue with socialism, so that’s what it’s all about

I can’t have been alone in wondering over many, many years why so many Americans have such an aversion to ‘socialism’ even in its mildest forms, like universal healthcare.   Every other ‘developed’ country embraced what’s commonly called social democracy decades ago, in the aftermath of WWII, as have other countries. But not the U.S. As far as they’re concerned, it’s socialism.

I used to think that I understood the reason and that surely it would pass. My theory was that it was tied to the Cold War fear of communism and the thought that socialism would lead to communism. I reckoned that once enough time had passed they’d realize that wasn’t the case. However, I have now learned that this aversion to social rights has been at the core of American principles since at least the mid-1700s. That’s what individualism is all about. It explains a lot of things.

Full disclosure: I grew up in the U.S. I was raised out on Long Island in the 50s and early 60s, and our holidays and extended family visits were spent in upstate New York and New England. New England in the 1950s was my ‘coming of age’ setting, in a middle class family that was following the American Dream of doing better than their parents. The American Dream, as I understood it then, meant that everyone had the opportunity to make a better life for him or herself. And the Dream was supported by a solid public school education. Education would lift you up.

I had a fantastic public school education. (I was just a kid. I did not understand that the quality of the schools depended on where you lived, since, at least in New York State, your schools were funded by your property taxes. And, not surprisingly, that the level varied enormously from district to district.) This was during the height of the Cold War; we had air raid drills, hiding under our desks, the whole bit. And there was lots of talk about ‘creeping socialism’, which apparently was something to watch for with vigilance lest we become communist.

When I was in grade 12 (aka 12th grade) our history teacher used the phrase ‘creeping socialism’ often. One day, just as I was thinking to myself, “What exactly is so bad about creeping socialism,” the girl in front of me raised her hand and asked that very question. Well, from the look my fellow student was given it was surprising the floor didn’t open up and swallow her whole. It had to have been the fear of communism. Or so I thought.

I left the U.S. the following year to attend McGill and, as so often happens in life as it unfolds in unexpected ways, I ended up staying in Canada and becoming Canadian. I was reminded of this confusion about ‘creeping socialism’ and communism when my husband and I found ourselves in the Soviet Union (Russia) in 1970. Although the Soviet Union didn’t officially collapse until 1989, their economic ‘system’ had visibly failed by the time we were there. I remember looking at the long lineup of people on the streets of Moscow, waiting to buy onions that were being sold of the back of a truck on a main city street, and thinking, “This is what we were so worried about?!”

However, I now know that this distain for any social rights – education, healthcare, welfare – has been part of the U.S. psyche ever since its inception. I now know that ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ doesn’t include social rights. On the contrary, it means the freedom to lead your life the way you want to lead it, with minimal government interference. Period. This is American individualism.

I swear I never, ever, heard this interpretation growing up. In school we sang “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” and “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched refuse waiting to be free”. We learned about the New Deal and the newly created United Nations. I didn’t know anyone who had a gun or wanted to have a gun, unless my cousin in upstate New York had one for hunting. Guns were never even mentioned. I never heard the term ‘individualism’. Clearly, I lived in a bubble. Maybe I just heard what I wanted to hear.

Well, my bubble has now been well and truly burst, but at least I understand the tensions in the U.S. better. I just finished reading a book by historian Greg Grandin called The End of the Myth: from the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. It’s a tough, tough read. Compelling and well written, but tough. There are quotes from politicians and other public figures from the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and the 2000s, and they all pretty well say the same thing. We are building an entirely new country that the rest of the world will look up to. That the rest of the world will envy. That the rest of the world will respect. Land, freedom for all (all meaning white males for as long as humanly possible), and freedom to develop a free-market economy and reap the results will win the day. The strategy for dealing with strife (race, housing, unemployment, etc.), regardless of century until fairly recently, was to open up more land as a ‘safety valve’. Take more Indian land. Then more. Take Mexico’s land with the Mexican-American War. Kill, rape, plunder. Open up the new land to keep (white) people happy and productive. Protect their rights to keep away Indians and Mexicans as they see fit. Protect their right to free markets. Otherwise, leave them alone.

Oregon Trail, circa 1865, by W H Jackson. Image credit: MPI/Getty Images

Once these settlers were established on their new land, the last thing they wanted was government interference. The only thing better than minimal government would be no government. That’s the foundation the country grew on, but I never learned that part. Or maybe I just never took it in.

I left the U.S. for Montreal in 1963, just two months before President Kennedy was assassinated. I was in England when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated and the U.S. suffered its most horrendous year for American deaths in Vietnam. I was back in Canada when Vietnam was ongoing and when the Kent State shootings occurred, 50 years ago. I was leading a very different life and not taking it all in. The never-ending wars in faraway countries continued, but I have to admit I never took the time to ponder how these recurring tragedies affected the American psyche or how they reinforced or upset the American sense of identity.

I had moved to a country that didn’t seem so different from the one I left – on the face of it. Sure, it has two founding cultures and languages (plus indigenous cultures and languages), which I love and embrace, but otherwise I didn’t think about inherent differences. Of course, I was young and not really focused on these things. But it turns out that they are as different as night and day. The U.S. was founded on the principles of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, which I clearly hadn’t interpreted properly as a kid – a sort of ‘thanks, government, but I’ll do it my way’ expectation. On the other hand, the British North America Act of 1867 that created the federal dominion of Canada highlights the values of ‘peace, order, and good government’. Talk about a contrast.

Canadians want and expect our government to provide social rights such as healthcare, education, and welfare, and it does. Along with European countries, Japan, and South Korea (and Costa Rica), Canada follows the philosophy of the greater good. This is social democracy. The United States, it turns out, has always placed a high value on individual rights and has been consistently suspicious of social rights. It’s the outlier on purpose.

I’ll never understand this way of thinking. However, now I at least know that it’s not just a misunderstanding of the difference between communism and social democracy that’s keeping the U.S. from adopting social democracy norms. The American dislike for even social democracy is the result of deep rooted values stemming from a country built on a frontier philosophy.

Knowing this long history does help me better understand the current American quagmire of division, discord, and anger. It doesn’t make me feel any better though. The Americans I know are far kinder than an ‘every man for himself’ frontier philosophy suggests. Friends on the outside will live in hope that America can find a way to reconcile its unique individualism with helping each other for the greater good. Surely ensuring others aren’t left behind can only help build a stronger America.

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57 Responses to America’s issue with socialism, so that’s what it’s all about

  1. Pingback: A COVID kind of year-end | Robby Robin's Journey

  2. flemingway61 says:

    This is an age-old problem regarding socialism; not unique to the US unfortunately. It may seem very obvious, but a great place to gain an understanding of why this happens is The Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels. Its very opening line refers to this issue ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism’. Even in the 1840’s socialism was portrayed as this “spectre” in Europe, as it is today in the US. (A funny side-note: in the first English edition of the Communist Manifesto, “spectre” was mis-translated as “a frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe”). Like Trump today, who describes every perceived rival as a “fanatical radical left socialist fascist”, Marx went on… ‘Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as Communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties…’. And for that reason Marx writes… ‘It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendancies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a Manifesto of the party itself’ – hence, The Communist Manifesto was written.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, flemingway61, but that doesn’t really explain it, and no European country (or Canada, Japan, South Korea, etc) feels this way. We all have universal healthcare and other social services that Americans shun as being “socialism”. It’s called social democracy and the belief that there are aspects of the common good that outweigh individual rights. What Bernie Sanders espouses, for example, is warned against in the U.S. as “socialism”; those social democracy policies have been in place in all other western countries for decades. This attitude of having social policy that helps all citizenry being considered evil is what others will never understand, or at least never agree with.

  3. Reece says:

    Our family immigrated to the US from Russia to find religious freedom in the late 1800’s. 5 years trying to find a home for their russian mennonite beliefs. Over the Himalayas and into China and eventually back thru Europe and onto a ship to America. The desire to have no government interference with religious beliefs is a huge element of many American immigrants. Today-American government is interfering with people of faith and their right to assemble or freely practice their beliefs without harrassment. Yes-you’re right many came to America to escape any form of government interference, opppression, or persecution. It was a new free world! I suspect we are heading for a collapse and separate nations will emerge from the current USA.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thank you for your interesting observations, Reece. You’ve captured what has until fairly recently been America’s strength, which seems to no longer hold. I have the very same fears for its future that you have. We’ll see what happens in November and whether it can be turned around. People power is having some positive impact at the moment. We’ll see.

  4. Paulie says:

    Your post on American individualism is spot on. Excellent piece.

    Among those in the shrinking middle class who oppose a healthcare system there’s a dearth of analysis and a knee jerk acceptance of fear mongering. I remember Sarah Palin warning that national healthcare would prevent you from selecting your own doctor (which is currently the case under different insurance plans) and that the government would decide who lives and dies (which is currently the purview of insurance companies).

    Isn’t it ironic that the same Americans who pride themselves on being “rugged individuals” can be so easily led by nose by corporate interests, ideologues and charlatans (something that’s evident now in the protests against shelter in place).

    Along with the centuries old notion of individualism there’s the centuries old suspicion of any taxation. Opponents of a healthcare system don’t want to hear the argument that a higher tax will be offset, at least partially, by eliminating insurance premiums and copays. They don’t want to hear that when everyone has healthcare the cost of healthcare can go down. And then there’s the old domino theory that once you get a “socialistic” healthcare system it’s just a matter of time before they, the mysterious and ubiquitous THEY will come for your guns and then every home will have to have a picture of old Joe Stalin hanging in the living room 😱.

    I think that instead of calling a national healthcare system a national healthcare system, the proponents should start calling it “bacon.” 🐖

  5. Randy Forgo says:

    A very thought-provoking perspective… and it seems entirely correct to me. Interestingly, I never realised that my Canadian view of the USA as still living in the “Wild West”, was more accurate than I had first thought. I could never understand why so many U.S. citizens were obsessed with guns. It now makes more sense. The entire “Frontier Life” model of existence in the U.S. is very outdated. Now is the time for U.S. citizens to adopt a new perspective on the constitution, the declaration of independence, and the charter of rights.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for adding your voice, Randy. At the very least, after seeing the results of minimal govt (and low taxes even for the richest) during an unprecedented global pandemic, when government intervention/assistance is badly needed, they may want to rethink their aversion to social rights and responsibilities that the rest of us expect and for which we pay our taxes. Of course, it’s up to Americans to decide what kind of civil society they want.

  6. OmniRunner says:

    Yes, living in the USA is frustrating these days. I do believe in a federal government and national laws, as 50 laws is unmanageable for business and individuals.
    But given what we are seeing in Washington, DC these days, I am glad that the Founding Fathers left so much to the states.
    We do tend to get caught up on Socialism and forget socialism as practiced in Canada, The UK, Germany, etc. Those countries function quite well.
    And with all of our individualism, we are not the healthiest or happiest country in the world. And if you take out the top 1% we are probably not the wealthiest nation either.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for this, Andy. I know, it’s happened occasionally before the past 3+ years, but since 2016 I’ve been humbled over and over again by the foresight of the Founding Fathers more than two centuries again to put in place such effective checks and balances. He keeps trying though! But re individualism, it is important for all of us outside the US who want it to succeed – and there are MANY – to understand that this philosophy has deep historical roots, just as it can’t help but be important for Americans to understand that there is a role for govt in helping all citizens. It is interesting that the strongest proponents of small govt and low taxes don’t complain about taxes being used for roads, bridges, dams, space exploration, airports, etc. Anyway, it’s a very complex and sometimes highly charged topic, that’s for sure! Thanks again.

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    Thank you for that well-articulated piece Jane. Seems that the good old US is happy to continue to plough its own furrow, drifting further away from the political and social mainstream every year. Only the people can change that and they seem to have no inclination to do so.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Or at least not enough of them do to make the change, hence the continuing divisions and discord. It’s hard to imagine how to reconcile such opposing philosophies. The “Wild West” lives on.

  8. EricR says:

    Wow, an actual civilized discussion about political ideologies! Everyone here should engage in a collective pat on the back! The discussion seems to have arrived at “nothing is perfect” and that is indeed true. There are limits to every social arrangement since it is always individuals making choices and these are ultimately unpredictable.

    Valuing the individual is possibly the crowning achievement of the west. Historically, the single person was always subsumed by the larger society/country/system, etc. As has been rightly pointed out here, this is a fundamental aspect of the American psyche as it was part of the formation of the country. Possibly it has gone too far in with the frontier mentality (and I think it certainly has in some cases), but it’s hard to argue with the level of success that is the USA.

    The sense that each person should be thought about when dealing with social structuring is actually a direct result of the individualist mindset. How that is to be achieved is, of course, the trillion-dollar question. This is where social democracy comes in. Not socialism as it is historically understood. I don’t anyone here would advocate “state control of the means of production”. That kind of complete control is the nightmare that has been experienced by places like Soviet Russia, Viet Nam, North Korea, Communist China, and now Venezuela.

    What we actually talking about is the interventionist state that uses government to try and balance the haves and the have nots at various layers of society. And a balancing act is exactly what it is. In essence, it comes down to the redistribution of wealth. How that is best done is the challenge of all governments. It is not easy.

    For example, how much do we take from the rich before they decide to live somewhere else? How much do we give the poor before they lose all sense of self-sufficiency and its corresponding sense of pride and accomplishment? I don’t have the answers.

    I think finding the balance is very important. What I find gratifying in this discussion is the underlying feeling that we want more people to be living happy, healthy lives. I hope I am reading your comments correctly but I feel there is a general sense of compassion behind them.

    Regardless of whether one supports a more individualistic or socialist position, I can’t help but think that if genuine compassion is at the core, the right balance can be found.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Eric, thanks so much for providing this considered analysis of the conflicting positions and their pros and cons, plus the need and challenge of getting the balance right. You’ve laid out the nub of the arguments for both philosophies well. I’d agree that until recently people would have had trouble arguing with the success of the US. Very sadly, that is not the case at the moment, but it has been. I hope we would all agree that compassion is at the core of getting the balance right and therein may lie the current rub. Sadly.

      • EricR says:

        Thanks. Yes, I was thinking historically with regard to the success comment. Indeed, the current times are, shall we say, dysfunctional? As you can tell, I lean towards the individualist side of the equation. I do that because the collectivist urge is tribal and we are watching its effects unfold every day. But individualism needs a health dose of compassion in order to minimize the worst of the “screw you before you screw me!” impulses. I could be wrong, of course. Great post on your part. Thanks.

  9. dfolstad58 says:

    I enjoyed greatly your post. The differences between Canada and the US are difficult to identify concisely. There are many and you identified one of them certainly. I do think the “frontier philosophy” explains a great deal.
    While I am glad to be, and very proud of my Canadian identity, there is much that I admire about the United States and its people, but more on the individual basis rather than their system.

  10. alesiablogs says:

    330 million people live here and all of us have a different opinion. 🙄 Stay safe my friend

  11. Alison says:

    There is so much to say on this issue. I grew up with parents who never took government assistance. There were 13 mouths to feed but they refused to accept food stamps. My dad never belonged to any organization and he was proud of that “individualism”. We watched the families even poorer than ours be taken care of not by the government but by other members of their community and by organizations such as Catholic Charities. From the perspective of my childhood there were safety nets for underprivileged. No one went without medical care in an emergency and everyone had a bed and food from their own earnings or from a local charity. I grew up believing small communities should care for their own, not government, especially not the federal government. The matter of socialism scares many Americans because many countries with total socialism have failed economic systems, countries are in debt and government pensions are unfunded. We have many many friends from Canada who come to the United States for their surgeries because they either can’t get the care they need from Canada’s socialized medical system or they can’t get it in a timely manner. Now I watch as my federal government goes into massive debt to put a bandaid on this pandemic situation and it keeps me up at night. Socialism only works if it’s funded and in order for it to be funded, those making a little will have to give a lot. That I think is the fundamental reason some Americans fight socialism. They want an opportunity to earn a living and to keep most of what they reap. Yes, this feeds greed. There is an ugly head to all forms of government it seems.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Alison. Thanks so much for bringing this perspective. It’s one those of us outside the U.S. need to hear as well as respect. Your closing statement is really important: there’s an ugly head to all forms of government it seems. I’ll close with it as well just to remind us because you’re right, nothing’s perfect. The way social democracy works, like in Canada and the Scandinavian countries, isn’t for those making little to pay more, it’s for those making more to pay more. Those in the highest tax brackets certainly wish they were paying less, but they can still live in the best houses, drive the best cars, go on the fanciest holidays, etc. And from what I understand, our property taxes are far lower than many places in the States because we don’t pay for our schools out of them, that comes out of provincial taxes.

      But if I just take healthcare and that were the only difference, people with little money or even a medium amount who had a child or spouse with a catastrophic illness would not have to worry about the cost, they could concentrate on worrying about their loved one. It’s definitely the case that there may be additional expenses, like travel and accommodation if very specialized surgery and care isn’t close at home. And there is no doubt that some elective surgeries like hip replacements can take far too long. But in my extended family alone we’ve had a premie in the NICU for 2 months, a child with heart surgery, etc. No bills. No mention of bills. The stress was unimaginable for the parents enough without having to wonder how they could ever get their lives back financially. Those people you know who went to the States to get an operation faster (jump the queue) had the option to pay or wait. I doubt they would have agreed that we’d be better off not having Medicare. But that’s the other side of the story. We pay marginally higher taxes, but it’s a progressive tax; the poor don’t pay more. We more or less trust our governments at both levels. We believe in the greater good. We have a very different history. And that’s why we don’t understand individualism. Butt knowing about it and its long history helps. And clearly it’s a concept held dear by either a majority or large minority of Americans. So we will all continue to root for good things to happen for the U.S. and for everyone else in the world. As you say, there’s no perfect system. Thanks again for chiming in.

      • Alison says:

        All valid points and please know I’m not advocating for the US to maintain status quo. I will say that the US used to have the reputation for being the most charitable nation (maybe still does?) which I like to think of as a self-imposed tax. I remember having long talks with my French friends about American charitable donations. It was so foreign to them and they would always say something along the lines of, “why would we do that? Our State pays for that!” Goes back to my childhood when Catholic Charities and other organizations were there as safety nets. These organizations are falling behind on fund raising now as our national and state governments have started duplicating services.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          It is interesting about different national cultures. I wonder if charitable giving is more of a North American thing. I don’t think Canada has quite as high a rate of giving because there are more donations to people’s churches in the US, which count, but charitable donations are also an important part of our culture. Good point. I think your original closing said it best, to paraphrase: nothing is perfect but we all try our best.

  12. Thank you for this awesome insight. A proverbial light bulb went on for me while I was reading this. I’m going to send a link to my husband and then enjoy some amped-up conversation with our newly enlightened perspectives! -Elise

  13. Lynda Homer says:

    Thanks for this interesting and enlightening article, Jane. It does help to explain a lot.

  14. Jean says:

    I’ve been hanging at an internatioinal cycling internet chat forum for the past decade. The majority of particpants (80%) are male, white (at least non visible minority) and approx. late 40’s up. The rest are women. There are a total of 4 Canadians including myself, who pariticipate. These are people who did bike/still bike…so cyclng is a side shared interest. It is rather interesting since this approx. 30 active particpants…genuinely do care about their health and have tried/continue to try to be health….food photos, habits and other trivial stuff.

    Even with this group in general Americans are very sensitive /ready to light the fuse on politics. The way around talking about socialism…instead to talk about health care as a right, not a privilege because we are human and ultimately weak. To talk about quality of living, why laws exist…not because govn’t interferes (perceived as socialism) but to protect residents/ctiizens, consumers and protect safety and health of self/others..for the greater good. If anything, the current pandemic is a powerful lesson how much people want govn’t to lay down controls for health and safety.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Well, we agree! They’ll just have to figure it out or continue to have inhumaine inequality in healthcare, where people don’t have to go bankrupt if they have the bad fortune to have serious health issues or have children with serious health issues. Hopefully you’re right and more people will see the societal need after so many cracks have been exposed during this pandemic.

      • Jean says:

        There are enough who do see the light but are helpless to fight against a large, complicated system of private firms endorsed by their laws foc care/payment. In fact, some don’t want to hear about Canada’s health care system..because they can’t cope well now.

  15. Very interesting read and clarifies the idea of the U.S.A. as a melting pot whereas here in Canada cultural difference is not only okay but protected in the Charter of Rights. Yes, the two countries have similarities, but they are just on the surface.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for these comments, Carol. That is another phrase I had forgotten about – melting pot – which is actually somewhat contradictory to the reality. But you’re right on that the melting pot concept is very much in contrast to our principle of multiculturalism, where different cultures and traditions are encouraged to be celebrated as opposed to expecting everyone to become the same while at the same time respecting individual liberty above all. There’s that contradiction. As you say, our similarities are on the surface.

  16. Rodrigue Savoie says:

    Such a great post!

  17. Brett says:

    Thoughtful article, which I enjoyed. 🙂

  18. LA says:

    Oh no! Not Long Island!!

  19. Great post! It reminded me of this article in The Atlantic… Where essentially the fight to protect some people’s freedom to do things (gun rights and anti-lock down protests) trumps other people’s right to be the free from other things (violence, infection.

    Thanks for writing this Jane. Well done.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Albert. And thanks for the link to this article. I now know that this uniquely American sense of individual freedom to do things at the expense of others, like to expose others as well as yourself to this virus and others, is rooted in 250 years of history. I don’t know how you ensure a healthy, functioning society that way, but it does explain a lot.

  20. Dr B says:

    That’s a very interesting post, most reflective personal posts are always interesting. As far as I can see the U.K. has a “socialist approach” to healthcare, education and welfare. But our politics polarised because the extreme left wing socialists commonly claim that the Conservatives want to completely privatise healthcare, which is completely untrue. Also, the extreme socialists want virtually EVERYTHING to be “nationalised” and under government control and funding …… such as transport, gas supply, electricity supply and several types of industry. I lived through and worked for British Steel Corporation for 13 years until it literally died because of low productivity, over manning, low quality, jobs for life …. all funded by government. The socialists will never return to power here while their extremists want to completely ban ANY private healthcare, private education, to restrict property ownership, …… the list is long!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, Britain really has gone between those extremes. But America seem to confuse the generic term socialism with social rights that the rest of us take for granted, as a slippery slope towards full-on current Venezuela-style socialism, agence their label of a “socialist state”, aka evil autocracy. The US wouldn’t sign the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 because it included the social rights of education and health because it was socialism.

  21. barryh says:

    Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    Jane Fritz puts her finger on why the US really is different, and why a lot of their citizens just cannot abide the idea of socialism or social democracy or free healthcare. Of course, it’s not all Americans – this is the ‘base’ that Donald Trump is always speaking to. And this shows us why we in the UK our unwise to follow the right of our Conservative Party that would like to make us more like the US.

  22. barryh says:

    Thanks so much for that enlightening read, Jane. I’ve been puzzling over this for so long, and you seem to have made it quite clear. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog – the more people understand the better. We’ll at least understand our US friends better. And hope that too many of them don’t go under as times get really hard in the wake of covid-19.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Barry. I know full well it’s not all Americans, maybe not even a majority, including people I love. We can live in hope that they figure out to keep what truly is good and special and get past what’s causing their existential angst right now. They’re got to be about more than money and military might.

  23. pendantry says:

    Surely ensuring others aren’t left behind can only help build a stronger America.

    You said it yourself: it won’t, if it gets in the way of the white old male autocrats.

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