Social Insurance: As American as Apple Pie

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.

Image result for thomas paine social insurance

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.”

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4 Responses to Social Insurance: As American as Apple Pie

  1. ennausa says:

    I really enjoyed your post because health insurance for all is an important topic that is very discussed in the United States. Coming from another country, I see that the health care system is very different than in my country of origin. Nevertheless, being a man of left or right is not important. What is important is to act. Paine, as you explain in your article, talked about a universal basic income. This does not really concern health insurance, but the idea of ​​benefiting the whole society is the same. The main idea of ​​Paine is that the conditions of each person should not become worse than before and through this system of health or universal income, the living conditions of the individuals could be easier. The right to live in good health is a natural and universal right and therefore everyone would have the right to have it. I had never heard the following quote before today: “Social insurance is as American as apple pie.” Does the fact that people who vote and decide the laws and come usually from wealthy social classes with easier access to health care has an impact on their decision about health insurance? Do they really care about the entire population?

    • samiomais says:

      Yes, I suspect that the wealthy in this country are more comfortable opposing the Affordable Care Act or universal health care for instance, because having secure and affordable health care themselves, it is difficult for them to comprehend that many Americans who are poorer do not and cannot have such health care. This is further exacerbated by the fact that wealthier Americans tend to live separately from poorer Americans and as a result don’t see the struggle the poor go through on a daily basis just to make ends meet.

  2. odessaclugston says:

    Hi Sami!
    I think you explore a really interesting theme in your post regarding linguistics in politics. One of the greatest things that struck me in Political Ideologies was the idea that ‘Classical Liberals’ are vastly different than the liberals that are commonly considered as normal today. While today’s conception of liberals revolves around the Democratic Party, Classical Liberals wanted an absence of government regulation on personal behaviors.
    I think this theme relates directly to your discussion of Sanders’s Democratic Socialism. What do these terms mean? Is there an independent meaning to this phrase? Or does Sanders’s Democratic Socialism merely reflect the connotations we’ve given to a concept with a vastly different meaning?

    • samiomais says:

      Hi Odessa!

      Maybe I can offer some clarity and define these terms :). Socialism is social ownership and democratic management of production. This is a term and definition that dates back to the 19th century. It is strictly an economic position. So one can be an authoritarian (a powerful central government) socialist, or a libertarian (small or no government) socialist for instance. Democratic Socialism advocates a socialist economy (as defined above) alongside a democratic political system.

      Now, Bernie Sanders is an advocate of democracy, but not of socialism. He does not seek to transfer private ownership to social ownership. He simply advocates the creation of a strong social “safety net” and robust regulation of the market. This is called Social Democracy.

      Now you might wonder, “then why does he call himself a Democratic Socialist?” I honestly don’t know, and it doesn’t make any sense because he clearly isn’t one. He’s a Social Democrat (think Scandinavia).

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