The Polis
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The Polis

The Politics of Bernie Sanders

Democratic Socialist or Social Democrat?

If anyone is paying attention to American politics at this time, it would be difficult to miss the fact that we are in a presidential election year. Donald Trump, currently serving as the 45th President of the United States, is running for his second term against a winnowing field of Democratic hopefuls. Trump, despite the deep loathing of approximately 50% of the electorate, is still a powerful adversary, carrying with him not only the sycophantic support of his own party members (with some notable exceptions), but he is also brandishing one of the most effective weapons available — incumbency in what may become a disaster-recovery year, depending on how he weathers the COVID-19 response. This obviously makes a lot of people uneasy, and makes the Democratic nomination process ever more important. This is perhaps why the 2020 field of Democratic hopefuls was so large, at one time topping 24 candidates, all with the same essential message of “We must defeat Donald Trump.”

By now, in mid-March, 2020, the field has narrowed significantly, with only 2 candidates remaining — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. At this late hour, it doesn’t seem there is much hope for Sanders to win, as Joe Biden has surged to frontrunner status amid a flurry of late endorsements, earned media coverage, and the undying allegiance of the entire Democratic Party machine. Joe Biden’s unlikely rise, after a thoroughly disappointing showing in the first three states of the primary season, is a direct result of the panic experienced by the establishment at Bernie Sanders’ impressive showing in early states, and the prospect of a brokered convention with the Senator from Vermont topping the ticket. Thus, the DNC, the mainstream media, and establishment democrats across the country scrambled to isolate and demonize Sanders, while elevating the addled-brain Joe Biden to the top of the race, insisting that only Joe Biden could defeat Trump, despite poll after poll showing that Sanders had the best odds in a head-to-head matchup with Trump.

While the establishment’s opposition to Bernie Sanders is manifold, I will focus only on the notion, shared by centrist Democrats and so-called “moderate” Republicans, that America will never elect a self-described “socialist,” and therefore Donald Trump will be assured a second term if Sanders is the Democratic nominee. Talking heads, pundits and politicians attempt, with increasing vitriol and condescension, to paint Sanders as a Marxist, communist, Cuba/Castro-sympathetic revolutionary, seeking to subvert democracy and establish a Union of Soviet Socialist Americans right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Sanders’ challenge against rampant wealth inequality and the failures and excesses of unfettered capitalism seem to suggest his ultimate goal is to turn America into an authoritarian communist regime, invoking images of bread lines and gulags. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has even opined, live on air, that Bernie will line up the wealthy elites in Central Park — himself included — and execute them publicly.

Of course most rational Democratic and Independent voters have not fallen for this disingenuous critique of Sanders’ politics, as polls consistently showed, just a few short weeks ago, that Bernie Sanders was the strongest candidate to defeat Trump. Moreover, Sanders’ policies — the same policies that the liberal elite casts as socialist giveaways — remain extremely popular, even amongst putative Biden supporters. In nearly every exit poll conducted since Super Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly supported Medicare for All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, and $15/hour minimum wage, despite voting for the only remaining candidate that has denounced those same policies. Joe Biden even went so far as admitting, on national television, that if he was presented a Medicare For All bill as President, passed by both houses of Congress, he would veto it. Why would people still vote for that guy? Electability. The establishment, with the unyielding support of the mainstream media, has convinced people that Bernie Sanders is unelectable, because he’s a socialist.

While it is true that Bernie Sanders has for years referred to himself as a Democratic Socialist, it is important to understand what that means. Socialism is, in the easiest terms possible, a system where the public at large owns and controls the means of production, and there is essentially no right to private property. Such a system seeks to equalize every member of a society, erasing the concepts of class, and seeks (ideally) to provide life’s necessities, by collective control over all of the resources. This is the model that led to the development of communist regimes, such as the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China. Although socialism is often used as a synonym for communism, there are philosophical and practical differences between these political models, but the subject is far too complex to address in a short article, and ultimately it is irrelevant to my point. What is relevant is that in virtually every instance of socialism and/or communism in modern history, we have observed the emergence of an authoritarian regime that nearly always leads to a totalitarian dictatorship, which rules with violence and oppression. Obviously, this type of system is seen as undesirable to people living in free, democratic nations, and for good reason. In most places where socialism has been implemented, it has almost always led to oppressive regimes, where the power rests in the hands of a ruling party, while the general populace languishes in poverty and fear.

It is this experience that most Americans have, as we have observed communist regimes rise and fall for the past 100 years, and every one has been seen as a failure, and a frightening reminder of the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin. Communist dictators like Mao Tse Tung and Josef Stalin were brutal authoritarians who ordered the slaughter of millions of their own citizens. The image of the 20th century totalitarian police state has left an indelible impression upon the American conscience, and most people are repelled by any notion of adopting socialist policies as a result. However — and this is important — Bernie Sanders is NOT a communist. He’s not even a socialist, regardless of what definition you apply.

Democratic Socialism is technically defined as a socially owned economy with an emphasis on the democratic control of economic institutions. In other words, as it is defined by political scientists, democratic socialism IS socialism, with publicly owned means of production and a democratically controlled economy, which is inherently at odds with capitalism. Bernie Sanders is not a Democratic Socialist either, at least by the accepted academic definition. The policies and beliefs of Bernie Sanders do not map onto the traditional definition of Democratic Socialism, because he is not advocating a public takeover of the means of production. Sanders only advocates for greater social programs and stricter regulation of the American economy, in an effort to reduce rampant wealth and income inequality and ensure that Americans can live in dignity and relative comfort in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.

Mr. Sanders’ politics are that of modern Social Democracies found around the developed world. In every OECD nation in the world today, healthcare is provided to every citizen as a human right — except in the U.S. Public colleges and universities are free or nearly free to all citizens, except in the U.S. Social programs provide basic necessities to all people, regardless of their wealth or social status, except in the U.S. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and in virtually every other developed nation, social democracy provides a safety net to prevent extreme poverty, and to ensure the needs of the people are met. The political philosophy of these nations is Social Democracy, however it is a common misnomer to refer to such a system as Democratic Socialism. That is problematic, since most Americans recoil at the term socialism, but calling something ‘socialist’ does not make it so. Perhaps we can convince Bernie Sanders to stop using the term Democratic Socialist, but I don’t think it’s necessary. His policies and his philosophy do not equate with socialism, and that should be enough, if people care to pay attention.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this natural adversity to “the radical vision of Bernie Sanders” is that the vast majority of Sanders’ policy proposals are not even radical in America. Most of these programs have been enacted in the U.S. previously. The New Deal brought a plethora of social programs that fit perfectly into the mold of Social Democracy, from social security to medicare, from jobs programs to progressive tax structures, the U.S. used to applaud these programs. In fact, it would be more accurate to refer to Bernie Sanders as an FDR Democrat, since most of his proposals are akin to the New Deal authored by Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal programs were incredibly popular, and they made the U.S. the envy of the free world between the 1940s and the 1970s.

It wasn’t until conservative Republicans and “moderate” Democrats began scaling back FDR’s programs that the U.S. lost its place of stewardship on the world stage. The New Deal created the first and greatest middle class in all of history — now, 40 years of neo-liberal policies have essentially vanished the middle class. The New Deal led America to be the model for an educated populace, once boasting the highest literacy rates in the world — now, 40 years of neoliberal policies have caused our education system to be among the worst in the developed world. The New Deal’s top marginal tax rates (sometimes as high as 94%) created an economic system that benefited all Americans — today, after 40 years of neoliberal policies, including massive tax cuts to the wealthy and “trickle down” economics, we have the highest level of wealth inequality in history, with millions living in poverty. In other words, the New Deal made this nation the greatest in history, only to be stripped clean by greed and corruption, causing the U.S. to now rank near the bottom in almost every metric of national success. The New Deal policies are the policies that Bernie Sanders is advocating, and they will reinvigorate this great nation to make it once again the greatest nation on Earth. And none of these policies are Socialist — they are Social Democratic, and they have been successful every time they have been implemented, in the U.S. and around the world. So, call Bernie Sanders whatever you want, Democratic Socialist, Social Democrat, or FDR Democrat, the label doesn’t define his politics — his politics define the label.

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Jesse Beasley

Jesse Beasley

Public interest advocate. Guitar guru. Devoted father. Political dissident.