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Opinion Bernie Sanders injects a big idea into the presidential race

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at George Washington University on his policy of democratic socialism. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Bernie Sanders’s big speech at George Washington University was billed as an address about “democratic socialism,” which naturally has shaped all the media attention. But in his address Wednesday afternoon, Sanders spent at least as much time talking about another, related ideal: economic rights.

As Sanders recounted, the charge of “socialism” has for decades been hurled at pretty much all progressive and Democratic efforts to expand the safety net, raise low-end wages, combat inequality and shift the tax burden in a more progressive direction.

Many of those efforts — from Social Security to Medicare to progressive taxation — are now treated as inviolable features of the American political economy, even though they were once denounced (and still are in certain quarters) as hopelessly radical threats to the American way of life. Much of Sanders’s speech tried to reclaim that history, to prepare voters for a general election (should he be the nominee), in which he hopes to roll out robust redistributive and interventionist policies that will once again come in for that same treatment.

To do that, however, Sanders reached back into our history for the idea of “economic rights,” as well. Here’s the crux of what he said on this topic:

In 1944, FDR proposed an economic bill of rights. But he died a year later and was never able to fulfill that vision. Our job, 75 years later, is to complete what Roosevelt started. And that is why today I am proposing a 21st century economic bill of rights.
A bill of rights that establishes once and for all that every American, regardless of his or her income, is entitled to the right to a decent job that pays a living wage. The right to quality health care. The right to a complete education. The right to affordable housing. The right to a clean environment. And the right to a secure retirement.

First, let’s address what Sanders does not mean by an “economic bill of rights.” He’s not talking about what are commonly called “subsistence” rights, that is, a right to a bare economic minimum. He’s talking very much in the same spirit that President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered in his original proposal.

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In his 1944 State of the Union speech, Roosevelt described his second bill of rights, economic rights, as a guarantor of “true individual freedom,” which requires “economic security and independence” (emphasis mine).

For instance, Roosevelt’s second bill of rights included a call for “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” That’s not merely saying you have a right to medical care if you’re dying; it’s a right to the resources needed to physically flourish. In Roosevelt’s telling, the full suite of economic rights are a precondition for true freedom and independence. Sanders is drawing on that tradition.

Nor is Sanders talking about constitutionalizing these rights in some way, an idea often discussed in the distributive justice literature. As he noted, he’s rolling out proposals to legislate those rights, as he already has proposed by calling for Medicare-for-all, a federal jobs guarantee and free-tuition college.

In addition to a “right to adequate medical care,” Roosevelt’s second bill of rights also included a right to a “useful and remunerative job” and the “right to a good education.” Sanders is expanding on this, by calling for a right to a “complete education” (emphasis mine) and a “right to a clean environment,” updating Roosevelt’s second bill of rights for an era in which higher education is far more critical and we’re debating the urgency of tackling climate change.

So when Sanders said he wants to “complete what Roosevelt started,” he apparently meant it.

Economic rights have not fared well since then, however. As Samuel Moyn recounts in his magisterial book, “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World,” the history of economic rights ever since has been a letdown for its proponents. While the New Deal did produce major advances — Social Security and labor rights chief among them — the very need for this statement of this second bill of rights itself acknowledged that the New Deal only went so far.

And though great strides were made in fortifying the safety net and battling poverty in the 1960s, the basic story has been that in the human rights revolution of the second half of the 20th century, the political and intellectual commitment to economic rights took a back seat.

As Moyn recounts, this was partly because of the human rights movement’s prioritization of basic freedoms and civil liberties against state violence and partly because of the triumph of neoliberal “market fundamentalism.” The result has been that, relative to human rights, far too little work has been done to push for economic rights, conceived as the baseline for a substantially more humane economic distribution as the moral alternative to what Moyn describes as the “decisive” triumph of the super rich and the “obliteration of any constraints on inequality.”

It’s often observed that we’re in the midst of a crisis for that very same neoliberal ideology and that this has given rise to Trumpist right-wing populism, but also that it has created unusual opportunity for left populism, as well. As Mike Konczal explains, the failures of neoliberalism — the idea that extreme inequality should be tolerated because it would produce robust growth and that deregulation would produce more economic dynamism and mobility, both of which proved false — are what has created the opening for an explosion of new progressive proposals for structural economic reforms, which we’re now seeing animate the Democratic presidential primary.

This is the spirit in which Sanders tried to reclaim this piece of history — to set a baseline for the debate that will now unfold.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: Bernie Sanders is not out of the running

David Byler: Bernie Sanders should be out in front in the Democratic primary. So why isn’t he?

Jennifer Rubin: Is Sanders past his sell-by date?

Dana Milbank: Bernie Sanders has emerged as the Donald Trump of the left

Katrina vanden Heuvel: A progressive one-two punch to fix the U.S. economy