Once among the most frightening and effective epithets in American political culture, “socialized medicine” seems to have lost its juju. These days, that phrase sounds awfully dated, like a song on a gramophone or a mother-in-law joke or a John Birch Society rant against fluoridated water.
Yet despite their antique quality, the old buzzwords still appear regularly in columns, press releases and speeches. Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican presidential pack run around squawking about socialism whenever anyone proposes to reform the broken health care system.
Syndicated columnist Robert Novak warns that the federally financed, state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is essentially a socialist conspiracy. So does President Bush, who has threatened to veto a modest increase in that program’s funding because he doesn’t want to “federalize health care.”
Although the red threat can still trigger an autonomic reaction among the party’s true believers, the rest of the country simply no longer twitches to that high-pitched, far-right whistle. Most polls not only show enormous majorities favoring the extension of health coverage to every child regardless of ability to pay, but substantial support for a radical change in how we pay and administer health insurance—including the possibility of a single-payer system overseen by government.
Why doesn’t the traditional propaganda work any more? Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union and the withering of Communism in Communist China have had a delayed effect on public attitudes in this country. Both the Russians and the Chinese have turned more capitalist than the West, abandoning their former systems without substituting modern democratic protections, leading to predictably bad consequences. As unbridled capitalists, the ex-Communists are more of a threat to the health of their own societies than to us.
Most Americans may also have noticed that corporate bureaucracy and corruption, which both figure largely in the present health care system, are not preferable to government bureaucracy. The same doctors who used to wail about the dangers of Medicare have learned how unpleasant it is to deal with dozens of insurance companies, each of which is creating different rules to cut costs and deny care as often as possible. So have their patients.
This corporate model is more expensive and less efficient than the government plans that provide care in every other industrialized nation.
And most Americans may have learned by now that such systems prevail in Western countries that aren’t normally categorized as “socialist,” including the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain, Canada, Germany, France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. All these nations manage to provide their citizens with high living standards, industrial and technological innovation, and broad political and economic freedom, even after 50 years of national health insurance in some form.
Meanwhile, the credibility of conservatives has diminished steadily.
These days they seem to have trouble achieving clarity on the meaning of their favorite clichés. For instance, the president hates federalized health care, but sponsors a Medicare prescription drug program that wastes hundreds of billions on drug companies and private insurers.
Right-wing definitions no longer seem so clear, either. When the government awards a billion dollars in sweetheart mercenary contracts to a wealthy Republican family in Michigan, that’s “private enterprise.” But when the government helps a struggling middle-class family in Maryland to send its children to the doctor, that’s creeping socialism.