The predictable mantra from the mainstream media pundits is right on schedule as the Democratic presidential candidates stake out their positions ahead of the 2020 primary season. “The party is moving too far left,” say the Washington pooh-bahs. These folks usually have no idea of what voters outside the Washington, D.C. cocktail circuit are thinking, which is why the election of Donald Trump in 2016 quite literally blew their minds.
They deem policy prescriptions like free public college tuition, a $15 minimum wage, and Medicare-for-all as somehow new and radical shifts for the Democratic Party.
These, of course, are folks who don’t know their history.
Think free public college tuition is radical? Just ask a baby boomer who went to a public university in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. Tuition technically wasn’t free, but it was so cheap that it might as well have been.
Think a $15 minimum wage is radical? Adjust it for inflation, and the minimum wage today would be close to $11 an hour to equal the minimum wage adopted as long ago as 1968. And had the minimum wage kept pace with the actual growth in productivity and the overall economy, it would be sitting at about $18 an hour today, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a reflection of the radical turn in American politics that began in the 1980s.
If you think Medicare-for-all is going too far, keep in mind it was that former radical Harry S. Truman who first pushed for a single-payer universal health care system in the U.S. In fact, single-payer health care was a Democratic Party objective for years. They opted to create Medicare for seniors only after earlier attempts to provide the benefit to everyone faced opposition from the medical profession and other special interests. The failure to include the entire U.S. population in Medicare is the main reason that Americans today spend twice as much as the average advanced nation on health care for health outcomes that rank close to Third World levels, particularly for the nation’s poor.
Those who suggest that the policies popularized by Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, and which have now been adopted by many Democrats, are somehow extreme or un-American have it wrong. Far from radical, they represent the very same domestic policies that previous generations grew up viewing as the norm. When baby boomers think about the good old days, or when politicians talk of bringing back the middle class, we need to remember how America had once built a middle class that was both the envy of the world and the engine for our economy. We operated like most other democratic socialist countries at the time. We taxed the wealthy and corporations and redistributed that income by investing in higher education to improve our workforce, building the interstate highway system and the schools that educated the baby boom, and by ensuring that workers were paid a fair wage for their efforts.
We operated under the notion popularized by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who liked to say that “we all do better when we all do better.” It was a philosophy that focused on the common good, and that’s a thread deeply woven throughout America’s history.
The truly radical turn in American domestic policy began in the 1980s, when the Republican Party, followed by the Clinton Democrats, all but abandoned the policies that had helped build the middle class in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy and debt for the rest of us. All but free public college tuition skyrocketed. Health care costs threw millions into poverty and bankruptcy. And workers, especially on the low end of the income ladder, continuously lost ground even as CEO salaries hit the stratosphere.
Suggesting that such policies have deeply harmed the country isn’t radical. It’s an historical truth, and it’s one that Americans need to remember as an all-too comfortable establishment resists those who seek only to return us to the America we used to know.