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Bernie’s Democratic Socialism Is Firmly Within the American Tradition

The Bernie Sanders campaign is nothing less than the promise to fulfill a thwarted but long-cherished American dream: a society where the wealthy and powerful no longer dominate our lives.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 1, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. David McNew / Getty

As long as Bernie Sanders is a candidate for president, the issue of democratic socialism will be front and center. To conventional wisdom and the punditocracy, this is a terrible weakness. Why on earth, they argue, does he have to use the S-word for an otherwise popular agenda?

And yet, not only is Sanders’s democratic socialism a strength — ultimately, with his recent victories and massive popular support, it has the potential to inaugurate a new era in American politics.

Over the past four decades, Bernie Sanders has won fifteen elections, the last eleven of which were statewide. In many of them, his opponents have tried to take his avowed democratic socialism and use it as a battering ram to drive him into political oblivion.

Not only has that strategy repeatedly failed, but over time, Bernie’s victory margins have only increased to landslide proportions, with overwhelming support from Democrats and independent voters, along with unusually strong support from working-class Republicans. Not only is he the most popular senator in the nation, he’s the most popular elected official as well.

You would think the moral of this story is abundantly clear — that red-baiting Bernie Sanders as some kind of un-American commie not only doesn’t work, it grows less and less convincing the more people get to know him. And after running for president for the last five years, virtually every American, in some way or another, has gotten to know him.

And yet, this lesson — backed by dozens of polls and electoral returns — continues to elude the American political establishment. Or, just as likely, it’s a lesson they simply don’t want to learn.

But what exactly is this “socialism” that the American public supposedly detests? Despite Sanders’s explanations as to what he means by “democratic socialism,” the media continue to conflate it with one-party communist dictatorships of the Soviet type, or with wholesale nationalization of all business activities by the federal government. It can’t possibly be all that FDR, MLK stuff he discusses when queried on the matter.

The desperate hope is that, with a lifelong radical like Sanders, somewhere out there in his past lies a “gotcha” quote from a young Bernie that can be read as an endorsement of gulags and Darkness at Noon. In Vermont, four decades worth of Democratic and Republican opponents have sent their opposition research teams on this desperate quest for Bernie’s Red Holy Grail — the final proof that behind his supposed democratic socialism lies a Stalin- or Mao-loving tyrant.

But the quest always fails. Because, for a lifelong small-D democrat like Sanders, this Red Holy Grail that his opponents dream of simply doesn’t exist.

So what does democratic socialism actually mean to Bernie Sanders?

It’s the Democracy, Stupid

If one reviews Bernie Sanders’s career going back to his first electoral campaign in 1972, it is clear that the most important word in his democratic socialism is the first one: democracy.

Bernie Sanders takes a back seat to no one in his commitment to democratic institutions and practices, civil liberties, individual freedoms, and the rule of law. For half a century now, the core argument behind his “democratic socialism” has been remarkably consistent — that constitutional freedoms and effective self-government are compromised by having a profit-driven, capitalist economy.

Capitalism tends to produce or promote inequality, corruption, militarism, selfishness, and a hollowed-out and degraded civic culture. Many people, especially the poor and working class, become cynical, despondent, and depoliticized, and thus drop out of the democratic process entirely. At its worst, democratic institutions and practices collapse, and civil liberties and freedoms are jeopardized.

Not a bad description of where we are today.

Bernie’s socialism simply refers to the series of policy measures that can reverse those trends and reinvigorate public life and democracy: Medicare For All, free post-secondary education, progressive taxation, universal childcare, guaranteed employment at a living wage, a sustainable environment, and public housing. Under this definition of socialism, businesses, markets, and profits will continue to exist — and will arguably thrive in a more egalitarian environment.

But here’s the rub: the wealthy and powerful will no longer dominate the government as they do today, and as they are accustomed to doing. And they will no longer reap superprofits through monopolies or control over what should be public goods, like health care. Politics would become the domain of the citizenry — not K Street. Democratic debate and processes — not the will of property owners or “the free market” — would determine what type of economy best suits the public’s democratically determined needs.

Capitalism as Socialism for the Rich

In this campaign, Bernie Sanders found an effective way to convey this notion of democratic socialism. What the government does with its resources now, Sanders argues, is — in effect — a kind of socialism. But in the United States, it’s a socialism for the rich. Here, Bernie has plenty of examples ready — pointing to the massive subsidies Donald Trump received as a developer of luxury condominiums, the bailouts for Wall Street following the 2007–8 crash, and how the Walton family can pay its workers starvation wages because taxpayers provide those same workers with food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing.

By explaining how our government is already set up to funnel money one way — to the rich — he can make the altogether reasonable suggestion that it simply be redirected downward. This is the core of his political revolution and his democratic socialism. As Martin Luther King, Jr, put it: America has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor — an old adage of King’s that Sanders frequently invokes.

And politically, it’s brilliant — it takes what Americans already most appreciate about government (Medicare, Social Security, public education, national parks) and shows how they are, in fact, a socialism for the rest of us.

While some socialists might scoff at this overly broad definition, they miss the point. It’s brilliant because it promotes a concrete discussion of what is actually happening in the United States today, and how we can change matters radically and practically for the better here and now. When that becomes the national political debate, Sanders thrives — because here, he is standing on very solid ground.

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks all the nations in the world annually on how democratic they are, using sixty political science indicators. Their Democracy Index invariably puts the Nordic countries — the ones Sanders most consistently identifies as his model — and all those that have extensive government civilian spending at the very top of the list for being the most democratic.

The United States ranked number 25 in 2019, and it’s no longer considered a “full democracy” according to their metrics. We are now in the “flawed democracy” category, alongside a collection of developing countries and Eastern European semi-democracies that teeter on the edge of full-throttle corruption and authoritarianism.

So why doesn’t Bernie Sanders just say, like Elizabeth Warren and almost all liberal politicians, that he favors capitalism and merely thinks it needs reforms to work its magic for the people of the country? After all, the Scandinavian countries are all based on largely capitalist economic systems, albeit with strong public sectors.

Yet the history of those very countries answers the question: militant labor and socialist movements are almost always the forces whose political efforts established those social programs; it has never been the work of “moderates” or “centrists.” And so it is in the United States today, where nearly all of Bernie’s presidential opponents eschew Medicare for All as they regurgitate health insurance industry propaganda while cashing large checks from those firms’ shareholders and senior management.

Embracing the term “democratic socialism” is not just a matter of rhetoric or branding. Bernie is a democrat first and foremost, and he knows the tension between democracy and capitalism is hardwired into the profit system. He does not believe the profit system deserves to be on a pedestal exempt from public scrutiny; privately owned and operated firms and industries must earn their position by being productive institutions in society. If they aren’t, in a democracy, the people have the right to regulate them, reform them, or — if they so desire — replace them. Otherwise, it isn’t much of a democracy.

That’s the essence of democratic socialism.

FDR Was No Socialist — But Bernie Is Right to Invoke Him

Bernie Sanders has now given two national addresses explaining what he means when he calls himself a “democratic socialist.” In both the 2015 and 2019 speeches, he grounded the term directly in FDR’s unfinished legacy — his 1944 call for an “Economic Bill of Rights.”

At the beginning of the American entry into World War II, FDR had outlined the “Four Freedoms” that defined the goals of an Allied victory: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are inscribed in the Constitution. Freedom from fear was the most radical; FDR was calling for a demilitarization of the world and an end to armed conflicts.

That left freedom from want, and this led to the idea of his “economic” or Second Bill of Rights. As FDR put it:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

FDR died before the war ended and the Cold War put the progressives on the defensive, but they made a strong comeback a couple decades later — Martin Luther King, Jr, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph’s 1966 Freedom Budget was built around FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights. Even George McGovern’s 1972 Democratic Party platform included most of it.

But with the ascension of the business Democrats and so-called moderates, such ideas, by the 1980s, became regarded as implausible, irrelevant, unnecessary, and outside the American tradition.

In this respect, the Sanders campaign is nothing less than the promise to fulfill a thwarted but long-cherished American dream. And it puts him in pretty good company — with the greatest president of the twentieth century and the iconic civil rights champion for whom we celebrate a national holiday. Sanders, like no one else of our time, stands on their shoulders.

The world today is perilously close to the world Roosevelt faced in the 1930s, with monopoly, economic stagnation, and inequality on the one hand, and the dramatic growth of authoritarian far-right and fascist movements on the other hand. Indeed, FDR emphasized that the Economic Bill of Rights was necessary to prevent fascism from ever being successful in the United States. Bernie’s democratic socialism — like the Second Bill of Rights and the Freedom Budget before it — is the way out of our present quagmire and points toward a more perfect union.

It’s been decades since anyone took up the mantle. But it is an idea whose time has finally come.