“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” said Donald Trump during his State of the Union address. “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
The room broke out in chants of “USA! USA!” Even portions of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party were compelled to express their assent: Elizabeth Warren, who’s positioning herself as a champion of working-class people in advance of the 2020 presidential election, rose to her feet and applauded along with the rest.
Bernie Sanders had a different reaction, remaining seated and expressionless. Bernie, of course, is the principal reason Trump felt compelled to say anything about socialism at all. It was Bernie’s presidential campaign that put socialism on the map three years ago. A simple glance at Google Trends tells you everything you need to know: searches for the word “socialism” increased tenfold between December 2015 and February 2016, when Bernie’s campaign began to take off.
The explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, the rise of a new generation of democratic-socialist politicians like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — these phenomena were catalyzed by Bernie Sanders’s openly socialist candidacy.
Bernie arrived on the scene like a time traveler from an era before the unbreakable stranglehold of neoliberalism. He came bearing gifts, including the gift of class conflict as an alternative framework for thinking through social problems and their solutions. The American public was more receptive of this gift than anyone would’ve expected, and now here we are, with the President of the United States warning us all of the dangers of Bernie’s ascendant alien ideology.
“I think it was great. I think he’s scared,” said Ocasio-Cortez of Trump’s socialism remarks. “He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing to the public.” Given the remarkable popularity of proposals like Bernie’s Medicare for All and tuition-free college and Ocasio-Cortez’s 70 percent top marginal tax rate, she’s probably onto something.
Insiders have suggested that Trump plans to explicitly run against socialism in 2020. In fact, in playing up the dangers of socialism, he may be positioning himself to run against Bernie Sanders in 2020. That would be a smart move, since Bernie is the most popular politician in America and could very well be Trump’s direct contender in the general election, if he can successfully dodge attacks from the establishment wing of the Democratic Party in the primary.
Sanders’s rebuttal to Trump’s address gave us a preview of how he plans to respond to the mounting attacks on socialism from the Right.
President Trump said tonight, quote, “We are born free, and we will stay free,” end of quote.
Well I say to President Trump, people are not truly free when they can’t afford to go to the doctor when they are sick. People are not truly free when they cannot afford to buy the prescription drugs they desperately need. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are exhausted because they are working longer and longer hours for lower wages. People are not truly free when they cannot afford a decent place in which to live. People certainly are not free when they cannot afford to feed their families.
As Dr Martin Luther King Jr said in 1968, and I quote, “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” What Dr. King said then was true, and it is true today, and it remains absolutely unacceptable.
In essence what we’re seeing here is Bernie Sanders challenging the popular equation of capitalism with democracy and freedom. This is the same point Bernie has been making for decades. “People have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labor camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech,” he said in 1976.
This Cold War dogma swept the pervasive reality of capitalist unfreedom — from the bondage of poverty to the perversions of formal democracy under the pressure of a dominant economic class — under the rug. In a 1986 interview, Bernie elaborated:
All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small “d.” I believe in democracy, and by democracy I mean that, to as great an extent as possible, human beings have the right to control their own lives. And that means that you cannot separate the political structure from the economic structure. One has to be an idiot to believe that the average working person who’s making $10,000 or $12,000 a year is equal in political power to somebody who is the head of a large bank or corporation. So, if you believe in political democracy, if you believe in equality, you have to believe in economic democracy as well.
For more than four decades, Bernie made these points to relatively small audiences. In 2016, everything changed. He now makes them to an audience of millions.
The rise of neoliberalism and the fall of the Soviet Union relieved the capitalist state’s elite of the need to keep shoring up the equation between capitalism and freedom. Capitalists and their ideology had triumphed, hegemony was theirs, and socialism was no real threat, a foggy memory of a distant era.
But forty years of stagnating wages, rising living costs, and intermittent chaos caused by capitalist economic crisis remade the world — slowly, and then all at once. When Bernie Sanders finally took socialist class politics to the national stage three years ago, people were willing to listen.
Bernie has been so successful at changing the conversation that the President now feels obligated to regurgitate Cold War nostrums about socialism and unfreedom to a new generation.
Good, let him. Each apocalyptic admonition is an opportunity for Bernie, and the rest of us socialists, to articulate a different perspective, one in which freedom and democracy are elusive at present but achievable through a society-wide commitment to economic and social equality. We will only escape “coercion, domination, and control” when we structure society to prioritize the well-being of the many over the desires of the greedy few.