Last month, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year old political upstart and avowed socialist, upended a a powerful Democratic incumbent in a New York congressional primary, it helped return the word “socialism” to prominence in American political debates — though not necessarily in a good way.
Ocasio-Cortez quickly became a political punching bag for conservatives. Countless columns by conservatives and even moderate Democrats exorcised Ocasio-Cortez’s dystopian vision of an America in which everyone has access to health care, affordable housing, a quality education, paid sick and family leave, and a living wage.
Indeed, many of the criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, which is not radical, not truly socialist, and is actually fairly popular, seems to boil down to that nasty nine-letter word, “socialism.”
Case in point, the bizarre meltdown experienced by conservative commentator Meghan McCain on the talk show “The View,” earlier this week.
McCain is no fan of socialism because . . . socialism is bad. Her proof is the country of Venezuela, which is experiencing a calamitous economic and social breakdown and has become a useful poster child for socialism-bashing conservatives. Never mind that many countries around the world have adopted the allegedly “socialist domestic policies” that Ocasio-Cortez is extolling — and have a citizenry that is happier, healthier, and more economically comfortable than in the United States. Socialism is bad. Period.
McCain cited two examples of the evils of big government socialism in America — the Post Office and the Veterans Administration. She could hardly found a stranger duo.
These are two of the most successful and well-run government institutions in America. When it comes to the former, I defer to Post Office evangelist Paul Waldman, a writer for The Washington Post and The American Prospect. The Post Office, he writes, “will come to your house, take a letter that you’ve written, move that letter by truck or plane or boat thousands of miles as far as it needs to go, and deliver it to the person you’ve sent it to, all in just a few days.”
It delivers 149 billion pieces of mail a year, which is half the mail in the world. And how much does this extraordinary service that we all take for granted cost? Forty-nine cents.
If you wanted to build a mail service from scratch and keep prices as low as they are, it would be impossible — and certainly unprofitable. Only the government can do something like this.
What about the VA? In recent years, the agency has been buffeted by scandals, but in reality, it is one of the best-run health care systems in the country. According to a 2016 Rand Corporation study, the quality of care at the VA is “equal to or better than care delivered in the private sector.”
The VA is ahead of the curve when it comes to use of electronic medical records, evidence-based medicine, and top-notch behavioral health programs.
Indeed, one of the strangest elements of the socialism debate revolves around health care. Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly, is one of the most popular government programs in the country (the only one more admired is another big government socialist initiative, Social Security). Beyond its popularity, Medicare is also more efficient than private health insurance.
How many Americans have warm and fuzzy feelings about their health insurance company? How about your cable company, your mobile provider, your airline, or your bank? How many Americans think these are well-run organizations, responsive to customer needs and highly efficient? One might even argue that government-run institutions, not burdened by the pursuit for profit, are better position to provide the most essential public services.
But for McCain, the issue with socialism is less about the provision of government services and more about the possibility that a larger role for government will mean higher taxes. Considering that McCain’s family has a fortune of more than $200 million and just saw their taxes cut — including the estate tax, which will likely impact Meghan McCain — I understand her concerns.
And let’s face it, for many Americans, just hearing the word socialism is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. But when you get past the loaded political rhetoric and look at the so-called socialist ideas being pushed by Ocasio-Cortez and other left-leaning Democrats, what you have are policies that are consistent with existing government programs that Americans actually like. If implemented, these policies might even bring enormous benefits to millions of Americans.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying socialist to believe that access to health care, affordable housing, a quality education, sick leave, and family leave are net positives and that the government can often provide those services better than the private sector. You just need to believe in facts.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.