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.