ZURICH (Reuters Breakingviews) - Pop into a gas station just about anywhere in south Florida to fill up the tank or snag a hot dog marinating in its own juices, and you may well be giving Maximo Alvarez your business. Having fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba under Operation Peter Pan, which airlifted unaccompanied minors to the United States in the early 1960s, Alvarez founded Sunshine Gasoline Distributors in 1987. He now has 536 Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Mobil and Marathon outlets.
Alvarez’s story is quintessentially American. That’s no doubt why he was chosen to address the first night of this week’s Republican National Convention, which ended on Thursday. The four days combined earnest testimonials about President Donald Trump’s achievements with venom-spitting vitriol about his opponents, all of it shellacked with the sort of reality-television varnish that launched Trump’s celebrity in the first place.
When it comes to policies, the GOP was reticent about what another four years of Trump would bring. Speakers preferred to attack Democratic nominee Joe Biden. A vote for him, they said, was a vote for the sort of rack and ruin that, ironically, is on grim display in many U.S. cities today.
Alvarez brought in one variety of this right at the beginning. Again and again, Biden was painted as a proponent or a dupe for the most evil of ideologies. To quote from Trump’s hour-long speech from the White House lawn on Thursday night, the former vice president is a “Trojan Horse for socialism”.
The narrative may be compelling, but it is almost entirely fallacious. True, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders styles himself as a democratic socialist. But all that means is that he thinks the government should have a somewhat larger role in the economy than it does now. Most of the tiny group of scruffy true believers in actual Marxist-Leninist ideology think Sanders is just another centrist.
Those real communists are right. Sanders and his backers call for policies that are considered tepid centre-left in every other developed economy: universal health care, stronger welfare programmes, and more redistributive taxes. Indeed, to most of America’s rich friends, allies and trading partners, the American socialism-versus-capitalism debate looks downright silly.
Alvarez criticised the Castro regime for “false promises”, including “free education, free healthcare”. Yes, and so what? Castro was an economic disaster, but governments all over Europe, not to mention Canada and Japan, have provided better education and medical care for their people than the United States has. The systems have various names, but here’s a hint: the most right-wing major party in Germany proudly wears the name Christlich-Soziale Union, in English the Christian-Socialists.
The speakers at the GOP convention seem to live in another world. “This election is a choice between the far-left Democratic Socialist agenda versus protecting and preserving the American dream,” railed Elise Stefanik, a New York congresswoman. Biden leads to the “path of socialism and decline,” said Vice President Mike Pence. “The Socialist Democrats have a different agenda that will dismantle our institutions, defund our police and destroy our economy,” contended House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. And on it went.
Ah, but perhaps the Democrats are not like any of the European social democrats. Perhaps they look back to the true Reds like Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. Maybe they embrace a programme of asset expropriation – where the state controls the means of production, followed by the liquidation of the former ruling class and their bourgeois lackeys.
Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all. Biden’s economic plan, including more government subsidies for university education and more accessible healthcare, is in line with the established practices of America’s peers.
Truth is, anyone searching for an example of contemporary socialism need look no further than the Trump administration’s response to the current recession. After all, income redistribution is at the very heart of socialism. And the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), which was passed by Congress and signed by Trump, provided $2.2 trillion of that. In other words, the government effectively “socialised” much of the income lost in Covid-19-related lockdowns.
The quantity of Trump’s socialism was exceptional (another buzzword much on display this week), but not the approach. The United States socialises lots of losses. Taxes already pay for most education and healthcare, and the government keeps close control of many other crucial economic levers.
As far as it goes, citizens are right to complain about the socialisation of the costs of some aspects of the current American way of life: the lost trust in law enforcement, rising civil unrest, and outsized losses of life from drug overdoses, obesity and gun violence. Voters might back a more positive socialised effort to deal with these problems. That’s Germany’s Angela Merkel, not Fidel Castro.
If the American dream needs preserving, as Stefanik said, the Republican convention was a poor example of how to go about it. There were some upbeat moments, like the president’s pardoning of Jon Ponder, a convicted bank robber. Overall, though, the tone was one of anger and grievance, as in the sweaty lipped attacks of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and of snarling, as in the speeches delivered by the president’s sons. It was just about the opposite of aspirational.
Many Republicans mistrust the United Nations, but it would be good for them look at its international comparisons, published annually, of happiness in different nations. The statisticians look at social support systems, healthy life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption.
Despite its immense wealth, the United States ranked just 18th in the latest ranking. It lagged 12 European nations, including Great Britain, as well as New Zealand, Israel, Australia and Costa Rica, most of which have embraced some form of, whisper the word, socialism.
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