Why I Can’t Trust the Bern
And Why You Should Think Twice Before Embracing Democratic Socialism
Sadly, I’m not one of the cool kids that are #FeelingTheBern. In fact, I find the attempted re-branding of socialism since the Bern’s taken the national stage a little disturbing. I can hear the smug indignation already — ”No, no, no. We’re feeling the Bern for democratic socialism, you establishment shill! Totes different.” Mmkay. Well, you’re all using a newfangled, rosy definition of democratic socialism. Let’s take a look at what the actual, historically-based definition of socialism is, courtesy of that giant book that tells us the meaning of words:
: a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies
Okay, moving on. So not only do words already have meanings, but Bernie’s beliefs very likely don’t fit that new definition of democratic socialism many have been convinced of. I say that because, for most of his life, Bernie has been an advocate of good ol’ fashioned red-as-they-come socialism. And he wasn’t particularly shy about it. In 1987:
“Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production, it means decentralization, it means involving people in their work. Rather than having bosses and workers it means having democratic control over the factories and shops to as great a degree as you can.”
Another little tidbit from a 1976 interview, via Politico:
“In the long run, major industries in this state and nation should be publicly owned and controlled by the workers themselves.”
These aren’t the ramblings of a Che Guevara-obsessed college student going through his red phase. These are the statements of a grown man. He was almost 50 and mayor of Burlington when he gave the 1987 interview. I won’t even go into how Bernie has praised Fidel Castro or his seemingly cavalier attitude toward breadlines. But suffice it to say, I find it completely implausible that Bernie has suddenly thrown aside a lifetime of beliefs now that he’s taken the national stage.
But maybe you’re still not convinced that democratic socialism isn’t real socialism. Here are a couple of screenshots from the website of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that Bernie has been involved with (i.e. he spoke at their convention in 2008):
As you can see, the Democratic Socialists of America do, in fact, advocate for the public ownership of the means of production. Bernie knows very well what democratic socialism stands for, and he’s been advocating for it for quite some time.
Even if I were to take Bernie at his word that he no longer believes in the public ownership of the means of production, here’s the thing: words have established meanings. Bernie is a smart guy. He knows that calling himself a “socialist” will give socialism a boost. And it has. The subscriptions to Jacobin, a socialist magazine, have increased dramatically since Bernie started his campaign (more on that here.) The Democratic Socialists of America have also taken notice. Taken from their website (emphasis mine):
“The attendees agreed that the “Bernie moment,” which has enabled DSA’s accelerated growth in recent months — reflected in increased attendance compared to previous conventions, justifies optimism about the future of democratic socialism in the U.S. and of DSA in particular.”
Also according to the official DSA website, their priorities include “increasing public awareness of democratic socialism through grassroots work for Bernie Sanders (but independent of his official campaign)”.
Now, are Bernie Sanders actual proposals all that radical? A couple might be. But on the whole — not really. If judged by his proposals alone, Bernie is not a socialist, but a social democrat. Those European countries that he seems to be so envious of aren’t really socialist either (although they certainly have socialist parties that have much greater influence than their counterparts have historically had here). Most countries he mentions are welfare states, to be sure, but they still maintain a healthy, relatively free market, which is clearly not what democratic socialism advocates. In fact, here’s what Denmark’s prime minister had to say regarding Denmark’s place in the 2016 campaign:
“I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
Now let’s use that big book of words again to find the definition of propaganda.
: ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.
Given all of the above, I think the Bernie campaign’s push for a softening of the term “socialism” is intentionally misleading and actually fits the definition of propaganda pretty well. Some of this propaganda comes directly from the Bern himself. However, most of it comes from his rabid followers on social media. Example:
But hey, if you’re a real socialist, like Bernie has been for most of his life, that’s fine. I would adamantly disagree with that philosophy and its applications in the real world, but at least I’d respect your honesty. Unfortunately, I don’t think Bernie would deserve that same respect, given his behavior so far.
(More on the distinction between social democracies, capitalism, and socialism here. )