Most Americans have probably never heard of Tommy Douglas. He was never prime minister of Canada, a big hockey star or a well-known entertainer. A few Americans might know him as the grandfather of American action-star Keifer Sutherland.
Yet in 2004, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) did a national show on who was the greatest Canadian of them all, Tommy Douglas won.
And he was a democratic socialist.
Born in Scotland, his family immigrated to Canada when he was six. When Douglas was a child, he injured his right knee and doctors thought they would have to amputate his leg. His family was poor and couldn’t pay the medical bills. It was only because a famous surgeon said he would treat Douglas for free if medical students could observe, was his injury treated successfully.
The experience changed him forever. Years later, Douglas said: “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.”
Eventually he became a Baptist minister but was horrified by what was happening to people during the depression. He became an activist and got into politics – as a democratic socialist.
In 1935, he was elected to parliament as a member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) the forerunner of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP). Eventually he switched to provincial politics and became the leader of the CCF in Saskatchewan. In 1944 he was elected premier and the head of the first democratic socialist government in North America.
He introduced a provincial bill of rights and was the first Canadian leader to call for a national bill of rights. (Which eventually happened in 1982 with the Charter of Right and Freedoms). He was the first politician in Canada to create a government-run utility that spread electricity into many rural areas of the province. And his party, which was re-elected five times, introduced the first program to offer free health care to all citizens of the province.
In 1961 he stepped down as premier and became the first leader of the newly formed NDP. Although never elected prime minister, he party held the balance of power during the terms of Lester Pearson who took many of Douglas’s ideas, like universal health care, and made them available to all Canadians.
For his many efforts to improve the life of all Canadians, Douglas was constantly dubbed a “communist’” or worse by the country’s conservative politicians and media pundits. It all became a joke to Douglas. There is a wonderful documentary showing Douglas debating a conservative, who is standing at the microphone using all the worse scare words he could think of to describe Douglas, while Douglas sits quietly sitting in the background, with a delightful smile on his face, looking over his notes, preparing to demolish this pompous idiot who had no idea of what he was talking about.
And speaking of pompous idiots with no idea of what they are talking about, that brings me to CPAC, the conservative gathering of Trumplodytes that happened this past weekend in DC. “Socialism” is their new bug-a-boo word designed to scare Americans into supporting their repressive, anti-democratic agenda.
Speaker after speaker ranted about “socialists” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who they say want to turn American into a Venzuela-like nightmare. They used almost the same words that the enemies of Tommy Douglas used back in the 30s and 40s to denounce him. That’s the thing about conservatives. Their lack of imagination means their vocabulary rarely differs from country to country, from era to era.
Here’s the thing about democratic socialism. The key word is democratic. Countries like Sweden or Norway use a combination of the best ideas of socialism (free health care, free or very cheap education, etc.) and strong market economies. The result is that they regularly record the highest standards of living in the world. The same for Canada, which led the OCED index of growth for many years.
And let’s not forget Germany, France, Denmark, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Belgium, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland or the Netherlands – all countries that have achieved a balance of democratic socialism and capitalism.
Democratic socialism argues that there is an important place for the role of government along with private industry. I find it amusing that so many Americans conservatives denounce the horrors of democratic socialist programs, when so many count on two of them – medicare and social security.
Unbridled capitalism is a lovely system for the top 1%. The gap between rich and poor in this country continues to grow larger and larger. If people are afraid of a Venezuela happening here, that will be the cause not democratic socialism.
The far-right twist words and ideas beyond all recognition and try to shove them down people’s throats to scare them. (For instance, the other day a Republican state representative in Arizona compared mandatory vaccination for measles to “communism.”)
The day when democratic socialism and capitalism work side by side in America is not far away. And America will be a much better country for all its citizens as a result.