My friend Myrtle Kastner, proud campaigner for peace and economic and social justice, has, she suggests, been "quite amused" by the health care debate that reached the end of the beginning with President Obama's signing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 23.
What's so amusing?
"As I understand it, we have taken over the country," says Kastner, who is a proud member of the Milwaukee local of the Socialist Party. "The Republicans in Congress, the talk radio, all through the health-care debate, they've been saying its proof that the Socialists are in charge. Can you believe it?"
There really are socialists in America, unapologetic adherents of the social gospel of Norman Thomas and the "an-injury-to-one-is-an-injury-to-all" working-class populism of Eugene Victor Debs - and, of course, of the remarkable Milwaukee tradition that produced Socialist Mayors Emil Seidel, Dan Hoan and Frank Zeidler, as well as the nation's first Socialist congressman, free-speech champion Victor Berger.
Kastner celebrates the history of Socialism in Milwaukee, and keeps it alive with a steady schedule of meetings, lectures and, of course, the annual party picnic in a local park - No. 113, she notes, reminding any and all that the Milwaukee Socialists have been a steady presence on the American political landscape for more than a century. Maybe it was the early start that made the Milwaukee Socialists so successful - a success that earned international headlines one hundred years ago this April, when the party's endorsed candidates swept the city's 1910 municipal elections. Suddenly, the city that made beer famous had a Socialists school board, a Socialist city council and a Socialist mayor, Seidel, who appointed as his aide a young scribbler named Carl Sandburg.
They ran things so well that, for most of the next five decades, the good burghers of Milwaukee kept putting Socialists in charge until, finally, the last of the Socialist mayors, Zeidler, voluntarily stepped down in April, 1960. (A year later, an aging Sandburg, would read his poetry at the side of the nation's new president, John F. Kennedy, who like most presidents of the 20th century did not mind fraternizing with Socialists.)
It has been almost exactly 50 years since a capital "S" Socialist last ran a major American city, let alone anything more major.
But, now, a bemused Myrtle Kastner notes that her party appears to have taken complete charge of the U.S. government - or so House Minority Leader John Boehner, various and sundry sulking Republican politicians, and their amen corner in the media (led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity) would have us believe.
What surprises Kastner is not merely the fact that the party, which sometimes has a hard time filling all the chairs at its meetings, organized the takeover without informing her - or, to her knowledge, any other Socialists.
What seriously surprises her is that the health-care reform legislation that's been passed by Congress would be characterized by anyone who knows anything about economics or politics or history as "socialist."
"I'm afraid it's not socialized medicine," she says of the plan, which maintains private health-insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and nursing homes - most of which saw their stock values rise after the legislation was enacted.
Indeed, the Socialist Party stands in opposition to President Obama's approach.
"This is not a healthcare reform bill," says Socialist Party USA co-chair Billy Wharton, "It is instead a corporate restructuring of the American healthcare system designed to enhance the profits of private health insurance companies disguised with the language of reform"
As the Socialists note:
The bill passed by the House (March 21) would mandate all Americans to purchase health insurance coverage or face a fine. It would also create health insurance exchanges, an idea crafted by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, where people would purchase insurance from private companies. Those not eligible for Medicaid but who still could not afford to purchase insurance would receive public funds from the federal government to purchase bare bones coverage insurance plans from private insurers.
(Socialists) opposes this restructuring on the grounds that the mandates allow private insurers to use the coercive power of the state to enhance their private profits. Insurance credits will serve as a public subsidy to private companies. It is yet another case of public money that could be used for necessary social programs being funneled towards companies that engage in practices that are abusive and detrimental to the overall society.
Wharton argues, as would any self-respecting Socialist, that "public funds would be better spent in creating a national single-payer system. Democratic socialists see such a system of open access to care as one part of a larger transition toward making health-care a guaranteed human right for all."
That's a far cry from anything the Democrat in the White House has proposed. Indeed, as Wharton wrote in his recent Washington Post piece -- titled "Obama's No Socialist. I Should Know" -- "The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neo-liberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies."
So Myrtle Kastner is amused, and perhaps a little thankful to Limbaugh, Beck and the others who keep talking about "socialism." She's hoping that young people, in particular, will want to learn more.
And what will she tell them?
"I know they call Obama's plan ‘socialist,'" says Kastner. "But if the point is to make sure everyone has health care and that costs are kept down, Socialists really could have come up with something better."