By Robert Reich
No Republican governor has been more vocal in his opposition to what he describes as “socialism” than Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis. “I stand against socialism,” DeSantis thundered in Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial election. “Socialist policies have failed time and time again.”
In June, DeSantis signed an education bill directing Florida’s Department of Education to develop a curriculum educating students on the evils of socialism (as well as communism).
But how exactly does DeSantis define “socialism?”
One hint came in 2013, when as a freshman congressman he claimed that a federal bailout for the New York region after Hurricane Sandy was an irresponsible boondoggle. “I sympathize with the victims,” he said. But his answer was no.
The House overwhelmingly passed the bill nonetheless, providing $9.7 billion in flood insurance aid for Sandy’s victims. All 67 votes against the aid came from Republicans, including DeSantis. The Senate passed the bill too, although Florida Senator Marco Rubio also voted against the aid package.
So, would DeSantis call any form of government assistance to those in need “socialism?”
Apparently, DeSantis’s definition is more elastic than this. As his state confronts the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian, the fiercely anti-socialist DeSantis is asking the Biden administration for the help Floridians need — asking, in effect, for a form of social insurance that the United States government automatically provides Americans when disaster strikes.
The administration has already put 1,300 federal response workers on the ground. It has pre-staged 110,000 gallons of fuel and 18,000 pounds of propane, and has readied 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million liters of water. And it has moved in generators and has 300 ambulances in the state working alongside local officials.
Yesterday morning, DeSantis and Biden discussed further steps, including the issuance of a major disaster declaration that will provide Floridians with federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. Residents of nine counties will also be eligible for individual assistance.
“We all need to work together, regardless of party lines,” DeSantis told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, Wednesday night. “When people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything — if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to.”
My point is not to accuse DeSantis of hypocrisy, but only to point out that a major disaster tends to focus the mind on why we need to “work together” rather than issue meaningless attacks on “socialism.”
DeSantis’s stance against “socialism” has been the Republican Party’s harangue for a century.
Long before Trump hijacked the GOP for his pathological narcissism, it stood for you’re-on-your-own social Darwinism — and steadfastly against all forms of social insurance, which it termed “socialism.”
In the 1928 presidential election, Democratic candidate Al Smith, then governor of New York, put it this way:
“The cry of socialism has been patented by the powerful interests that desire to put a damper on progressive legislation. Is that cry of socialism anything new? Not to a man of my experience. I have heard it raised by reactionary elements and the Republican party … for over a quarter century.”
“Socialism” was the scare word used by the Liberty League in 1935 when Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed Social Security.
In 1952, President Harry Truman noted that “‘Socialism’ is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last twenty years.”
Socialism is what they called public power … Social Security … bank deposit insurance … free and independent labor organizations … anything that helps all the people. When the Republican candidate inscribes the slogan ‘down with socialism,’ what he really means is ‘down with progress.’
As a practical matter, what is the alternative to social insurance against hardship? It’s a survival-of-the-fittest society in which only the richest and most powerful endure.
Social insurance is what government is for — pooling our resources for the common good. In contrast to the Republican’s your-on-your-own social Darwinism, the Democrat’s social insurance recognizes we’re in it together.
We can debate whether some forms of social insurance reduce some peoples’ incentives to take reasonable precautions against potential hazards or cause some to become overly dependent on the government or undermine personal responsibility.
But there is no debate that social insurance is critically important. We are in it together.
Yet America spends very little on social insurance compared to other advanced nations. Almost 30 million Americans still lack health insurance. Nearly 51 million households cannot afford basic monthly expenses including housing, food, childcare, and transportation. We are the only industrialized nation without paid family leave.
Many Floridians (and, as seems likely, residents of South Carolina and adjacent states) clearly need the help of their fellow Americans to weather this monster of a hurricane. And their urgent, palpable need should remind us how often we need one another — not just in a terrible hurricane, but through many unforeseen and terrifying hardships.
Because of this, we have depended an institution that pools our national resources and helps those of us in need. It’s called the federal government.