And in the process, Sanders could well bring socialism, or at least the variant he calls “democratic socialism,” into the mainstream.
Yesterday Sanders gave a speech in which he outlined his vision of democratic socialism, which is essentially what in Europe they call “social democracy.” It covered both means and ends, but was actually light on philosophical underpinnings, except by implication. He said that health care should be a right, not a privilege (with a universal single-payer system); that everyone who wants to should be able to go to college; that we should invest in infrastructure; that no one who works full time should live in poverty (so raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour); and that loopholes that allow corporations to shield themselves from taxation should be closed. In other words, what he advocates is not some alien and threatening set of ideas, it’s basically contemporary Democratic ideology, albeit on the liberal end. Here’s how he closed the section of the speech explaining what his socialism consists of:
So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes – if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally pay the taxes they should.I don’t believe in special treatment for the top 1%, but I do believe in equal treatment for African-Americans who are right to proclaim the moral principle that Black Lives Matter.I despise appeals to nativism and prejudice, and I do believe in immigration reform that gives Hispanics and others a pathway to citizenship and a better life.I don’t believe in some foreign “ism”, but I believe deeply in American idealism.
That’s not exactly a list of radical notions.
Sanders is advocating an American version of European social democracy, which sought to incorporate socialist principles of equality and collective responsibility within the capitalist, democratic system. Its manifestation there in places like Denmark (Sanders’ favorite example) is a system with plenty of economic freedom, but a more robust welfare state than the one we have, offering people benefits like free child care, paid family leave, universal health care, and free university education.
Among the major differences between European and American politics is that in most European countries, even the conservatives accept the broad contours of the social democratic welfare state, while American conservatives don’t. Our conservatives have long believed that expansions of the welfare state have a zero-sum relationship to liberty itself. That’s why Ronald Reagan said in the 1960s that if Medicare passed, “behind it will come other government programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day as Norman Thomas said we will wake to find that we have socialism,” which would mean “we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” Even if today’s conservatives grudgingly accept the existence of Medicare in their rhetoric (though they’re always trying to dismantle, cut, or privatize it), they still believe in this zero-sum relationship.
The argument from social democrats is that having something like Medicare doesn’t make us less free; quite the contrary, it provides us the security that allows us to freely pursue our own happiness. But conservatives still argue that any expansion of the welfare state is little more than the first step on the road to a communist totalitarian nightmare, where we’ll spend all our time standing in breadlines in our itchy and depressing grey sackcloth coats.
Sanders’ campaign may serve to make that caricature less persuasive, which is already happening anyway. For decades, democratic socialists had to fend off the charge that they were really communists in disguise, but the passage of time and history has begun to free them from that charge. As Harold Meyerson notes: “The anti-socialist and anti-liberal leaders who deliberately conflated Rooseveltian liberalism with Stalinist communism (the young Richard Nixon was a master at this) were put out of work with the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Two and a half decades later, the only person who bothers to call Sanders a communist is Donald Trump, and it sounds so weird that no one else agrees.
In fact, polls in recent years have found that socialism’s image in America isn’t so terrible. This YouGov poll, for instance, found that Democrats and people under 30 (for whom the Cold War is ancient history) felt equally favorable toward socialism and capitalism; other polls have produced similar results. For many, then, there isn’t necessarily a contradiction between the two.
Even though he likes to talk about “a political revolution,” Sanders is actually arguing that the systems in those European countries differ from our own only in degree. We have Medicare for people over 65; they have the equivalent of Medicare for everybody, which is what Sanders wants. By invoking FDR and MLK, and pointing to the parts of the American system that embody his democratic socialist principles, he’s saying that those elements are already within our system, so they aren’t anything to be afraid of.
The more Sanders has a chance to make this case to a broad audience of Americans, the more “democratic socialism” sounds like little more than what a liberal Democrat these days believes. And if that idea takes hold and spreads, his campaign will have had a truly profound impact.