On September 13, 15 U.S. Senators, lead by Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, introduced Medicare-for-all, single payer health care legislation in the U.S. Senate. In an email sent out to supporters, Senator Sanders explained that the aim of the legislation is to “guarantee health care as a right for every single man, woman and child in the United States of America.” This isn’t the first time Senator Sanders has proposed such a bill. In 2013, he introduced similar legislation, but failed to secure a single co-sponsor in the Senate. Now he has 15, including, prominent Democratic figures such as Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.
But it’s not just the Democratic Party that is warming up to what is popularly dubbed “universal healthcare”. According to the latest polls, 60% of Americans agree that “the federal government is responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all Americans.”
These events represent a major shift in American public discourse. During the 2016 presidential election, Sanders was often derided as a “socialist” who wanted to enlarge the government at the expense of the American people. Although he ultimately lost, analysts were in agreement that he outperformed expectations despite the socialist association. Polling early in the election season revealed that younger people, the core of Sanders’ base, have a much more positive view of “socialism” then older generations. Overall, Americans are increasingly becoming less hostile to “socialism.” Seeing how Americans already overwhelmingly support social insurance programs such as Medicare and Social Security, perhaps this shift in public opinion is unsurprising and only logical.
Senator Sanders, despite the popularity of his policy initiatives, is deemed to be “far left” by virtually all commentators. Given the right-ward shift of the American political spectrum on economic issues since the Reagan years, it’s understandable why. But it is nonetheless remarkable how Sanders and his ilk in America are treated as radicals introducing alien notions into the political discourse. This was seen in the 2016 Republican Primary, when candidates scoffed at what they described as an attempt to make America like Scandinavian countries or Germany, or even communist Cuba. Even Sanders himself somewhat embraced this meme, as he adopted the label socialist (qualified with the prefix “democratic”) and referenced countries like Sweden as examples of his vision. The discourse on all sides treated his ideas and policies as foreign to America. But are they really? Many will recall the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1930s, which gave us Social Security. But the idea of social insurance dates back even further, to when America was just 13 colonies on the east coast.
Thomas Paine, a “Founding Father” of the nation and author of the famous revolutionary tract, Common Sense (1776), wrote a short work entitled Agrarian Justice in 1797. In it, he defends and proposes a plan for a “national fund” that would provide each and every person a modest sum of money upon turning 21, and an even smaller amount on an annual basis for those 50 years and older. It was essentially social insurance in the form of what today would be called “universal basic income.” This was decades before the emergence of socialism and communism, let alone modern social democracy and democratic socialism. Yet as novel and remarkable as this fact is, it is barely known. On the contrary, Paine is frequently misappropriated by popular commentators to defend ideologies that propose policies anathema to those Paine supported. Glenn Beck for instance, a popular conservative commentator, authored a book entitled Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, in which he claims Paine as an inspiration for a form of government so “limited” that social insurance of any kind would be nonexistent.
This is but an example of a wider phenomenon: the (at times willful) ignorance of the history of social insurance, or “welfare,” in America. Not just as a measure adopted in reaction to economic depression, but as an ideal rooted in notions of “natural rights” and “justice.” Social insurance is, as the old adage goes, “as American as apple pie.”