Essential Programs

If you’re into politics you’ve probably experienced a moment after reading something that really resonated with you and you thought to yourself “That is so right, it’s exactly how I see things.” I had such a moment after reading a New York Times piecefeaturing University of Pennsylvania political science professor emeritus Dr. Adolph Leonard Reed, Jr., which I read when it was reprinted recently here in the AVA. Looking into his bona fides, I learned that Reed has specialized in issues of U.S. politics and racism and distilled all of his wisdom and disciplined academic thinking into what many libs these days would consider heresy. And being black himself, Reed has more freedom to express his views without fear of an avalanche of critical Tweets or yapping talking heads. 

In a nutshell, Reed believes that single-issue politics have diffused our national ability to join together to effect real change. Politicians drone on and on about racism, sexism, same-sex equality, abortion, gun rights, and a host of other social ills that existed in this country before it was even a country and will doubtless persist even after we’re all dead and gone. In these intensely political days candidates and pundits alike are even reaching back into their own early lives to dredge up long-ago injustices they claim to have suffered, as if their personal sob stories can substitute for a real plan of action on how to fix what’s so wrong with this country. And, before you dash off to write a poison-pen comment to me it must be said of course that all of these issues are individually important. But focusing solely on one issue drains the energy and the power that could get to the true roots of our social ills, which are essentially income inequality and out-of-control capitalism, which together are the forces truly spelling our collective doom. 

Bernie Sanders understood this, but couldn’t marshal the support he needed in the face of an obliterating wave of powerful and influential people who have grown fat, happy, and complacent from years of laissez-faire capitalism and our country’s fast-disappearing financial, environmental, and regulatory controls, promulgated years ago by cooler heads to protect us from our own capitalistic lesser angels. Greed is by its nature insatiable; for the truly greedy, no amount of lucre is ever enough to fill that unfillable chasm of desire. 

Despite his failure to run for the presidency, Bernie has at least indirectly pushed, pulled, and dragged Democrats to the left, the direction the tide is turning. I dare to hope, in my disappointed heart, that Joe Biden gets this. His recent acceptance speech supplied the outlines of what this country should be, as a whole. He didn’t directly attack Trump: no individual president is the problem. He didn’t devote his time disproportionately to racism, sexism, or any other current social issues: these issues are the byproducts of an uncontrolled for-profit society that pushes everyone to the margins to more generously feed itself. And he mercifully did not wallow in the deaths of his first wife and infant daughter and his adult son. Who among us at this age has not suffered devastating personal loss, and how does this public self-indulgence in one’s private grief propel us toward a more economically equal society? It doesn’t.

But mention shortfalls to either Medicare or Social Security and we might finally have a revolution on our hands. These enormously popular programs are so enmeshed in our collective DNA that it’s easy to forget that they passed into law amid enormous opposition from big-money interests at the time. “Communism!” many prophesied, as they railed against so-called coddling by the federal government. The opposition was fierce. Yet the need was so great that these programs did become laws of the land, and to suggest their dissolution today is the kiss of death for any politician. Just ask George W. Bush, who quickly dropped the idea of privatizing Social Security. But they have become so important because virtually everyone benefits from them. You do have to be older to access their benefits, but these days most of us grow old enough to receive them, regardless of our color, sex, or our sexual or any other kind of orientation. Social Security’s inequities gave way to the greater good. My grandmother, for example, never received a penny after working harder all her life than any of us can imagine as a poor farm wife. The agricultural exemption was a necessary casualty to secure the South’s buy-in, and of course it was wrong. But it didn’t stop the train. There’s a lesson here that voters will hopefully remember come Election Day.

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