The Republican Party wants you to see, in every exercise of federal power, the creeping spectre of socialism. Of course, this is definitionally and historically wrong. Although the scope of federal involvement in common affairs has always been the issue that divides Americans most, we have also, as a nation, historically come down on the side of more, rather than less, federal power, to undoubtedly beneficial results. Let’s examine.
The Articles of Confederation & the Constitution: the American Constitution is the paradigmatic proof that federal power is not always a bad thing. Immediately after securing our freedom from the British, we enacted a representative form of government by means of the Articles of Confederation, which created something closer to a confederacy than a federal republic. As an organizing document, they wholly failed: the federal government was powerless to tax or, essentially, pass any meaningful legislation. Critically, the power to regulate interstate commerce was completely absent. The results were disastrous. The Constitution massively reworked the state/federal balance, creating a union that, put simply, placed more emphasis on “United” than “States.” 222 years later, we’ve overcome challenges that would’ve stopped the confederated United States cold in its tracks.
Assumption & the First Report on Federal Credit: in ancient Rome, coins were manufactured by private mints, under state contract, and the public treasury consisted of, for the most part, what the consuls could haul out of the provinces. That’s basically what we had, too, in 1776, except we were also broke. Alexander Hamilton changed all that, by assuming all of the states’ war debts and, in five short years, building the financial institutions of a modern state. It was a massive power grab; and it was also wildly successful, there being no other option.
The Bank of the United States: despite spawning the greatest controversy of the early American Republic, the Bank of the United States, in its short history, successfully standardized American currency, ending rampant speculation and bringing to a successful close the Hamiltonian revolution started in the First Report. The Second Bank was considerably less successful, but by the time its charter expired, so had its role in America’s rapidly-evolving financial history.
The Reconstruction Amendments: the Bank was a costly and ultimately Pyrrhic victory for Federalists. The price of the Reconstruction Amendments, though, was much higher, as they emerged only after the bloody, catastrophic Civil War. And yet none today can deny their efficacy. The Reconstruction Amendments (XII, XIV, XV) fundamentally altered the state/federal balance in a profoundly positive fashion, securing to all Americans, regardless of race or gender, the “blessings of liberty.” Though dearly bought, the result is a closer-knit, freer nation.
FDR’s New Deal: face it — pure laissez faire capitalism doesn’t work. This is the simple lesson of the 1800s. Whether caused by greed, corruption, or simply, well, panic, the financial “Panics” of the 19th century proved that a modern nation cannot successfully ignore its economy, or leave it entirely to private, self-interested actors. Make no mistake, capitalism works, and remains the engine of America’s success, but it works best complemented by a healthy regulatory regime. Regardless of your affection or distrust of government intervention in the economy, the New Deal is the reason you don’t have to worry about your money disappearing from your bank account tomorrow. Quite simply, revisionist history notwithstanding, the New Deal worked.
Medicare & Social Security: a “single payer” public insurance scheme may be too controversial even for today’s Democratic supermajority, but it’s been standard fare for American seniors (65+) for 44 years. Similarly, Social Security keeps 13 million seniors above the poverty line, despite concerns over its solvency. Certainly there are problems with both programs, but they’re by-and-large success stories, responsible for maintaining the health and well-being of our “Greatest Generation.”
It may be that “we’re all socialists now,” as Newsweek suggests. But if we accept the Republicans’ definition of socialism — “a system of government that taxes its citizens and uses state power to forge economic solutions” — we’ve been a “socialist state” for at least 200 wildly successful years. There will always be problems to solve, but we — and by “we,” I mean, “the Republican Party” — should focus on solving them, rather than dreaming up clever names to call our opponents.