The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 spurred government action. Sadly, it couldn’t happen today.

Posted by

Democratic 2020 candidates need to explain why government exists. It’s not socialism. It’s a cop on the beat.

On June 22, 1969, The Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. This was nothing new. The polluted river had caught fire 13 times before the 1969 incident dating back to 1868. However, this particular fire was different. It made national news. The city of Cleveland had recently elected the first black mayor of a major American city, so the town was on the radar of many. With the Vietnam War raging and civil unrest everywhere, the newly elected President of the United States had decided to make pollution and the environment one of his main priorities.

The Cuyahoga River fire led to a national outcry and prompted a federal grand jury investigation into the causes. Eventually, it was determined that about 12 companies in Northeastern Ohio were responsible, including several steel concerns that lined the river for miles.

What transpired from the investigation prompted actions from Congress and the President that would be unheard of in today’s paralyzed political climate. On January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed, which is a law that promotes the enhancement of the environment and establishes the Presidential Council On Environmental Quality. Not long after that, the Environmental Protection Agency was created on July 9, 1970, through an Executive Order by Richard Nixon. A few months later, Congress gave the agency regulatory authority after passing a series of amendments.

Finally, in 1972 the Clean Water Act was passed, which established a framework for addressing water quality that was to be implemented by an agency in partnership with the states.

That’s quite a list of actions from our elected leaders. The public had reacted negatively to what was happening to our environment, and it took a fire on the Cuyahoga River to underscore the massive amounts of pollution that were being dumped into our rivers and streams. What would it take today for our congressional leaders to act in such a fashion? That’s a question for another post.

The point here is to highlight an issue that we are sure to address in the upcoming presidential election of 2020—that Democrats are socialists and would like nothing better than to have a system much like Venezuela. Let’s face it … this is what we’re going to hear. And one thing for sure about the Republican Party—when it comes to message discipline, they’re in lock-step most of the time. And this is where Democrats get themselves into trouble. When the ‘S’ word (socialism) is thrown at them, the candidates can and must have a strategy to counteract the charges.

A few weeks ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren had a town hall on CNN where she responded to an audience member’s question about where she stood on the concept of socialism. Her answer should be the standard for all of the candidates. In no uncertain terms, Warren declared “I’m a supporter of the markets … with rules.” It’s not the first time she’s responded in this manner. But it drives home the point that she’s a believer in capitalism, but that capitalism cannot exist without a cop on the beat.

Of course, some of Warren’s ideas and those of the other candidates are socialistic in their nature. But we already have socialism in our country. We have Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid to name but a few. These programs have been part of our society for generations and trying to take any of them away would not be met with approval from the American people.

Other than Bernie Sanders, most of the Democratic candidates are believers in our capitalistic system, with a little socialism sprinkled in here and there. Nobody is saying the government should take over the means of production. Nobody is saying the government should be in the business of making cell phones, televisions, or autos, etc.. But there is a vital role for government to play in this system.

The example of the Cuyahoga River fire drives home that point. We have lots of governmental departments and agencies. They were all created at one time or another for specific reasons. In this case, the EPA was created in response to industries dumping millions upon millions of gallons of polluting chemicals in our rivers and streams. The Cuyahoga was a glaring and tragic example of what happens when an industry is left to police itself. Or, at the very least—limited scrutiny.

Corporations exist to make a profit. For the most part, they operate under the guise of their board of directors and stockholders. In other words, corporations answer to those people and must show that they are profitable. Left to themselves, with no governmental oversight, would we not have a system in total chaos? How would it be on Sunday afternoons in the NFL if there were no referees to police the game? That’s right … bedlam.

Indeed, though, there has to be a balance. At times, some of the agencies may go too far. Other times, as is the case with the current administration, regulations are being rolled back across the board. Trump has put people in charge of agencies who are flag-bearers of the corporations they are supposed to be overseeing. The EPA for instance, is now being run by Andrew Wheeler, a long-time coal industry lobbyist and climate change skeptic. Is this the kind of man who should lead an agency in charge of keeping our water and air clean?

So when Donald Trump and the rest of the Republicans start labeling all Democrats as socialists, the candidates for president especially must make a full-throated defense of why government exists in the first place. We need a cop on the beat. We need rules for capitalism to survive—smart rules. And we also need a government that can provide services for the people when industries can’t or won’t. The candidate who can best explain these things in an honest and straight-forward way will have the best chance at winning the nomination.

Senator Warren has undoubtedly been out front on these issues. She’s not afraid to call herself a capitalist. But she’s also not afraid to propose measures that she thinks will benefit society as a whole … not just the well-off and powerful.

The EPA is part of the so-called ‘cop on the beat.’ So is the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Drug Administration, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. There are many others. They all have been created for a reason. Each one has a role to play. Industry insiders will do their best to limit the power of these agencies. They will shower politicians with cash. They will sit in on legislative mark-ups. This is a huge problem that calls for a huge fix. Again, that’s for another post.

The Cuyahoga River fire represents a point in time when our politicians seemed to be able to find common ground. Not anymore. The idea that a Republican president (Nixon) helped establish an agency that is currently abhorred among most on that side of the political aisle speaks volumes. Simply put, it would not happen in today’s political environment. No way. And that’s a sad thing.

But Democrats will do themselves well if for no other reason than to distinguish which side is for society as a whole, and which side is for the wealthy and corporations. A little socialism is okay. A cop on the beat is a must.

From time to time during the next election cycle, we will do our best to highlight certain governmental organizations and agencies. We’ll explain what they do … and why they do it. Facts matter.


  1. Excellent post! A couple of things come to mind here. The first is the irony, that Richard Nixon, forced to resign for some of the very same crimes the current squatter in the Oval Office has done, took care of the environment so seriously and created the very same EPA that Trump is dead set on destroying. I’ve said several times lately that compared to Trump, Nixon was a good guy … I stand by that statement. The other thing that jumps out, and I’m in the planning stages of a post on this very thing, is that there is a difference between the two political ideologies: socialism vs social democracy. The difference is that with socialism, the ‘people’, ie the government, own the means of production, the factories, equipment, land, etc. Social democracy, however, is something that I fully support. It supports capitalism, but with certain things, such as health care, education, and the economy being more equitably distributed. It seems that with today’s republicans, before you get the word social out, they are decrying that you are a socialist and wish to take all their hard-earned money from them. The majority live payday-to-payday and don’t realize they are fighting for that which is helping only the upper echelons. They are shooting themselves in the foot. Sigh. You know it’s bad when you long for Nixon to be back in office!!! 😉


    1. You put the nail on the head Jill. That’s a spot-on definition of Socialism vs. Democratic Socialism. And Nixon? Yep…the guy was a dirtbag…but he was a smart dirtbag. He understood politics and legacy. Both parties worked together much better in those days. Trump compares to him only on the dirtbag side. Nothing else. He’s tearing down democracy to suit his narcissistic personality disorder. I’m like you…I never in a million years thought I’d compliment Richard Nixon…or George W. Bush for that matter. But, that’s the crazy place we’re in these days….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! Yes, and the other thing I can say about Nixon is that he actually did a lot of good in terms of international relations while he was in the White House. Will Trump ever be able to say that? I doubt it, given that thus far he has alienated us from our allies by pulling out of the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear agreement, and is apparently dead set on increasing tensions in the Middle East, to name just a few. And, at least he had the good sense to resign when facing impeachment. Even if there were enough in Congress willing to impeach Trump, I don’t believe he would resign, but would have to be forcibly removed by a bulldozer!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    The Environmental Protection Agency has an important … nay, imperative … job to do, but under the Trump administration it is being stifled … I would even go so far as to say the goal of this administration is to completely dismantle the agency. Blogger friend Jeff at Voters On The Fence has written an excellent post reminding us how and why the EPA came into being, and of the important work it does. Thank you, Jeff, for this insightful post and for letting me share it with my readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brookingslib, well done. A couple of points. The EPA creation and opening up relations with China are Nixon’s biggest accomplishments. He can’t get kudos for ending a war he extended by disrupting peace talks before the 1968 election.

    We indeed are a capitalistic economy with socialism underpinnings. In addition to what you mentioned, we have bankruptcy protection (without it Trump would have much less money) and various restrictions on monopolies, interlocking boards, insider trading, etc.

    Finally, you are right about the GOP staying on message. Here are a few:
    – Failed stimulus: they were so good with this even Dems thought it was true – it is false
    – Job killing Obamacare: again false, although it did redefine part-time work
    – Make America Great Again: I still have no idea what that means as the economy was eight years into a growth economy and the stock market had more than doubled under Obama.

    The focus on socialism is a key reason for the focus on Venezuela and AOC. I like the way you frame it, but Dems need to focus that they are the party of jobs (more than double the rate of jobs under GOP White Houses including this one), they are about healthcare and they have plans to address climate change and the water crisis. At least the Green New Deal is a plan to work from, whereas the GOP is denying the greatest threat to the planet and national security per the US DOD.

    I would like to give a shout out to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” Her advocacy made Nixon and others aware of the environmental degradation.

    Sorry to be long winded. Dems should lean in – jobs, healthcare, climate. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Keith. You and I are on the same page. The essence is to accentuate capitalism but also remind voters that unbridled capitalism is just as dangerous as unbridled socialism. We need to emphasize the positive role government plays. Republicans have slammed government for so long…Reagan pretty much started it…that Dems are always on the defense. How about a little offense for once?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True about Reagan, but he did not denigrate the FBI, CIA and other public servants. It bothers me that such an untruthful man, can convince his followers that everyone else is lying.

        As for Dems, they need to lean in. They have a good story to tell. Keith


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s