Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist.
Should I give you a minute?
When many Americans hear ‘democratic socialist’, all they hear is ‘socialist’, and when they hear ‘socialist’, they hear ‘communist’ (*cue ominous sounding music*).
It is understandable that the word communist should cause some Americans trepidation. For the better part of a century communism represented the nefarious ‘other’ in the lexicon of American propaganda, a mantle now taken up by ‘terrorism’. But in truth democratic socialism is no more communism than flying an airplane is flying a kite. At its most elemental, democratic socialism is, precisely as the name would suggest, a combination of democratic and socialist mechanisms. In this way it is fundamentally inconsistent with the single party, and totally centralized system of Lenin/Stalin communism. A helpful quote comes from the political theorist Bernard Crick, who said that democratic socialism “struggles against the evils that flow from private property, yet realizes that all forms of private property are not necessarily evil”. But within democratic socialism, as any political philosophy, there exists ideological differences in focus and process. So it is most important to understand exactly what Bernie Sanders means when he calls himself a democratic socialist.
For Bernie, democratic socialism is about building a system that guarantees economic rights for everyone, not just the very wealthy, a system which protects the needs of working families, the elderly, children, the sick, and the poor. Many years ago a young ‘Bernard Sanders’ stated that people would look back on this era and ask “how could people allow other people to be hungry, starve to death, they have nothing while others have tremendous wealth”. Putting aside ivory tower political posturing, this is a question which should, in a time of incredible wealth creation and technology, gnaw at the soul of any decent human being. Bernie Sanders has spent his life in politics working to reform the economic system so that it offers better protection to the disenfranchised, and to reform a corrupt political system which through big money influences concentrates power in the hands of a wealthy elite. For Bernie, democratic socialism is not about government control over every aspect of life, but rather about government ensuring the conditions in which everybody has a foundational level of prosperity. As he said himself;
“I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production. But middle class and working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”
I think it is clear in the details that Bernie Sanders is not some sort of ‘commie’ pushing America towards an autocratic, centralized reincarnation of the Soviet Union. But the subconscious is a powerful thing, and propaganda is used because it works. I can understand that, definitions or not, when some people hear democratic socialism they will not be able to stop images of Stalin and Lenin, the hammer and the sickle, from entering into their mind. So let me give you a few other faces to call upon.
Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Helen Keller. George Orwell. David Ben-Gurion. Cornel West. Noam Chomsky. Albert Einstein.
These are some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th (and 21st) century and, yes, they are all democratic socialists. So for those who would paint Bernie Sanders and his beliefs as crazy, I assure you that you do so of a philosophy close to the hearts of those far more intelligent than you or I.
But maybe you are the type of person who looks with disdain upon the ideological. It is easy to think about ideas, you may say, and much more difficult to translate ideas into reality. Where has democratic socialism ever successfully existed in the real world?
I’m glad you asked.
Currently the best examples of a democratic socialist model are found in four Nordic countries; Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. These countries share a similar socioeconomic approach which they have implemented to great success. This success can be best illustrated through the use of global studies and indices.
Perhaps the best measure of accomplishment is the Quality of Life Index, which takes into account health, safety, and economic factors to measure an overall quality of life. In the most recent recording of this indicator all four countries did very well. Denmark ranked 2nd, Norway 8th, Sweden 10th, and Finland 11th. The United States also did relatively well, but finished behind all four countries in 12th place.
But wait, perhaps you are thinking that what makes the United States great is its mighty economy. Surely these democratic socialist states have pitifully weak economic prowess. Perhaps a better indicator then is the Global Competitiveness Report, which measures drivers of prosperity and productivity, and is composed by the World Economic Forum. It is true that using this indicator the United States did finish ahead of all four Nordic countries in a solid 3rd place, but all four finished very competitively with Finland 8th, Sweden 9th, Norway 11th, and Denmark 12th in the world. Not exactly the economic struggles a skeptic might expect. Furthermore I think that it is important to include an aspect of income equality when measuring economic productivity. If an economy produces $1 trillion of wealth but one person takes it home and everybody else starves to death then it is not overall very successful. In a measurement of income equality among 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Denmark finished 1st, Finland 4th, Norway 8th, and Sweden 9th. The United States finished way down in 32nd.
But maybe your fears surrounding a democratic socialist system don’t surround quality of life or economics. Maybe the real worry stems from the old Soviet Union stories of tyranny; Dictators and corruption, the suppression of free speech, labor camps. America is the land of the free you may be thinking, and no measure of economic success or quality of life can supersede that.
In the Corruptions Perceptions Index examining corruption in government through the ‘misuse of public power for private benefit’ Denmark finished 1st, Finland 3rd, Sweden 4th, and Norway 5th. The United States finished in a tie for 17th.
In the Democracy Index examining pluralism, civil liberties, and political culture to get a measure of the ‘state of democracy’ Norway finished 1st, Sweden 2nd, Denmark 5th, and Finland 8th. The United States finished 19th.
(You may see where this is going….)
In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Finland finished 1st, Norway 3rd, Denmark 7th, and Sweden 10th. The United States finished 46th, narrowly beating out Haiti and Niger for the spot.
In measuring proportional prison population the United States had by far the highest number of its citizens incarcerated. Norway was way down the list with 177th most people incarcerated of any country in the world, Denmark 186th, Sweden 190th, and Finland 192nd (again, proportionally).
I could but I will not continue. What should be clear is that by any standard of measurement these four democratic socialist countries have been wildly successful, arguably even more so than the United States in recent history.
Here is where you will likely draw upon American exceptionalism. The United States, you will say, cannot be compared to four (relatively) small and obscure countries. America is a unique and beautiful flower (from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans….) and should be treated as such. On this point I will agree. America is unlike any country which has ever existed. But here is the thing — Many of the fundamental characteristics which have made and do make America extraordinary are strongly rooted in democratic socialism. The most indispensable example is of course FDR’s “New Deal”. Publicly FDR had to fight off charges that he was a socialist, due to the same fear mongering propaganda that Bernie Sanders faces today. But in reality his “New Deal” was an ideal example of socialism operating within a democratic system. It brought in socialist style programs like Social Security, minimum wage, and unemployment insurance, and greatly increased economic regulation by the government. But examples of democratic socialism run throughout the very fabric of America. From Medicare and Medicaid, to collective bargaining, to the 40 hour work week. Things like public schools, publicly funded roads and highways, and even the military are spectacular examples of state ownership of industry. These are the programs which define America. These are democratic socialism at work.
It should be clear by this point that democratic socialism as a concept is neither foreign nor frightening. But what about the specific platform put forward by Bernie Sanders. If you have been listening to opponents of Bernie across the political spectrum and in the corporate media you may say his proposals will be too costly and too harmful to the economy to be realistic. In essence, that his democratic socialism goes too far. Unfortunately this argument is usually articulated by shouting `commie!` or `socialist!`and then inserting ones fingers into ones ears. What I am more concerned with is a coherent discussion on relevant issues, preferably done with the assistance of experts.
When Bernie Sanders says that he will reform Wall Street and most specifically break up the biggest banks by reinstituting Glass-Steagall he is called crazy by opponents in the corporate media and political structure who benefit enormously from the status quo. However, recently a group of 170 of America`s top economists, academics, and financial experts endorsed this plan saying in their report “(Bernie) is correct, the biggest banks must be broken up” and that this was “critical to avoiding another ‘too-big-to-fail’ financial crisis”. They contrasted Bernie’s plan with the more delicate proposals of his opponents, most specifically Hillary Clinton, saying, “Secretary Clinton’s more modest proposals do not go far enough” and that they would “only invite more dilution and finagle”.
The second place where Bernie’s platform has received much attention and attack, though not much scrutiny, is his plan for a single-payer, universal health care system. We are told that a proposal of this nature would be ludicrously expensive, but again this is advocated by those in politics and media who most benefit from big pharmaceutical favor under the current system. I suggest we mine the experts for information. Noted economist Robert Reich advocates that a single-payer health care system would be far cheaper than the current system due to enormous savings in executive pay, marketing, and billing. A study in 2013 by Gerald Friedman, another prominent economist, concluded that a single-payer system would “save an estimated $592 billion annually” due to a reduction in administrative waste and pharmaceutical prices.
But perhaps these well known and well respected economists represent a fringe opinion. Conveniently for us this is an issue that has been well studied. In 1991 a study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that a single-payer system could be introduced at “current levels of spending or somewhat less”. In 1994 the CBO studied the idea again and concluded the net costs would be negative (meaning savings). In 1998 the Economic Policy Institute examined single-payer and found that national healthcare expenditures would be unchanged or that there would be savings. In 2005 the National Coalition On Health Care estimated that a single-payer model would reduce costs by $1.1 trillion over ‘the next decade’. Again I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Those who attack the health care proposal of Bernie Sanders as being extravagantly costly and unrealistic quite simply have not spent the time that it takes to read the last two paragraphs doing their homework.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, is the issue of taxes. This is where detractors of Bernie Sanders are at their most Freudian. There is an inherent fear in Americans that a government headed by a communist, or a socialist, or in this case a democratic socialist, will introduce programs which are so monumentally expensive that in order to pay for them they will have to dramatically increase taxes. If you are one of the many who subscribe to this type of thinking I strongly encourage you to take a quick look at the breakdown of the tax plan proposed by Bernie Sanders.
As you can see, for those making less than $250,000 taxes will not go up at all. And raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 is really not such a dramatic idea at all. In fact the newly elected (non-socialist) government of Canada is in the process of doing just that. But perhaps you are skeptical. Perhaps you think that this is a “read my lips, no new taxes” moment. How, you may wonder, can Bernie Sanders pay for all of his proposals with such a modest tax restructuring? The answer lies in corporate taxes. Simply put, the current tax system in which corporations operate is a total debacle. This cannot really come as a surprise in a system in which politicians are funded by large corporate entities and the media is owned and controlled by these same entities. The secret to Bernie Sanders’ plan, the fundamental piece to his entire platform and really the entire ideology of Bernie Sanders, is corporate tax reform. I will spare you the dry details of dissection but here is the bottom line. Corporations have used their monetary influence over government to create a system in which through practices such as inverting, foreign tax havens, and other loopholes, they avoid paying their share of taxes, often paying no taxes at all. So how will Bernie Sanders pay for his proposed programs? He will do so by vigorously reforming the corporate tax system to close ridiculous loopholes and ensure corporations pay their share of taxes. This is a blueprint put forward not only by Bernie Sanders, but enunciated and endorsed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of America’s preeminent experts in commercial law. As Bernie Sanders has said to corporations in his typically eloquent manner;
“You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can’t continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities as Americans.“
By now you may be starting to warm to old Bernie. You may be starting to realize that behind the piercing eyes and the unkempt hair is a man of particular substance and conviction, a man with a method which might not be so absurd after all. But as he has gained in popularity his detractors have started to paint him as an idealist, that is to say someone whose ideas are so radical that they cannot possibly hope to gain conception in reality. Hillary Clinton spoke to this point in a thinly veiled attack when she said “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done”. However, the truth of the matter lies simply in the realm of actuality. As the only Independent in Congress it was thought that Bernie Sanders and his provocative ideas would be an afterthought. But from 1994-2006, in an aggressively right-wing Republican controlled Congress, nobody — Republican or otherwise — passed more amendments than Bernie Sanders. He was able to further the progressive agenda with legislation on education, health care, poverty, and crime. After moving to the Senate in 2006 he continued to get amendments passed on issues such as the environment, government corruption, and labor rights. When Hillary Clinton says she likes to “get things done”, she means that she likes to back down for political expediency. When Bernie Sanders says he likes to get things done, he means he likes to get things done.
The truth is that no President can go it alone. Any true radical progressive reform will need the cooperation of Congress and the Senate, and thus it is crucial that supporters of Bernie Sanders vote not only for President, but also in congressional and Senate races, a point which Bernie himself stresses adamantly. But the history of Bernie Sanders shows that he is vigorous in his convictions and talented in the political maneuvering required to have said convictions realized.
There is one final issue which I will touch on here. This is the idea propagated by the Democratic party establishment that voters need to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary because she is the only one who can defeat the eventual Republican nominee in the general election. Of course a brief examination of recent polls shows this idea to be patently false. Not only is Bernie Sanders matching or exceeding Clinton when pitted against Republican front-runners in many of the individual states which have been polled, but he is exceeding her nationally against Republican candidates and most specifically Donald Trump (54%-39% vs. 51%-41%). Much as in the late 1800’s when the political establishment opposed Teddy Roosevelt in his crusade to end the political ‘spoils system’, it is easy to understand why the establishment would now oppose Bernie Sanders, who similarly seeks to destroy the modern spoils system which has been so financially beneficial to them.
But more vitally and more inspirationally I would like to say this;
There is an incredible cynicism towards the political system existent in many Americans today. The feeling that the system is rigged, that politicians are bought, and that the voices of the many are stamped out by the power of the few, has led enormous sections of the population to feel discouraged, demoralized, and disheartened. From 1840-1968 voter turnout was over 60% in presidential elections 80% of the time, including over 70% every year from 1840-1900. Since 1968 voter turnout has not been over 60% even once. But there is something happening in America today. The message of Bernie Sanders, unheard and unspoken at this level of politics for so long, is resonating in an incredible way. Young voters are participating in the process for the first time, and older voters who had derisively given up on politics are feeling optimism and re-engaging. Just recently thousands of Americans in dozens of cities spontaneously took to the streets to support Bernie Sanders under the banner of #WeAreBernie in one of the most inspirational displays of American political participation in recent memory.
The point I am trying to make is this. The reason Bernie Sanders can become the next President of the United States is not fundamentally because of support among Democrats, or even support among Independents. The reason is because of support from countless Americans who previously felt excluded, voiceless, and trampled on under a corrupt political forgery.
The reason Bernie Sanders can be the next President of the United States is because we are Bernie.