Bernie Sanders’s New Deal Socialism

20 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A leading socialist explains what Bernie Sanders’s socialism gets right — and wrong.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production,” he said Thursday. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families of this country who produce the wealth of this country deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down.” Us neither.Inside a crowded auditorium at one of the most prestigious universities in the nation, Bernie Sanders made the case for an American vision of socialism.WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said that economic security is essential to Americans achieving true freedom, a central tenet in his political philosophy of “democratic socialism.” “Real freedom must include economic security.

In the US 2016 presidential campaign, one candidate stands out as running on a platform that would make him almost undistinguishable from any European Social Democrat, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. A lot of voters call that unacceptable, so Thursday, he offered a passionate explanation of why he wears that label, saying he’s carrying on the legacy of Franklin D. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on Thursday. “It means building on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. But that was the closest Sanders got in his hour-plus speech at Georgetown University — which was pitched as an explainer on his brand of socialism — to actually addressing a political philosophy that many Americans, almost by definition, are opposed to. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated, and I quote, ‘This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.’ ” Democratic socialism, Sanders argued, is about guaranteeing Americans their “economic rights — R-I-G-H-T-S.” The goal is to provide “economic security,” ensuring that working families, the elderly, children, the sick and the poor can meet their basic needs.

In signature style, Sanders argued it is not he who is the radical — that it is billionaires and their allies who are the threat to the fundamental American values of fairness and compassion. Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who trails Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, faces deep skepticism over his political brand. But The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold followed his plans to their logical conclusion and found an America under President Sanders would look very different from what it does today. In a much-anticipated speech at Washington’s Georgetown University on Thursday, Sanders went on the offensive to explain precisely what this label means.

Three quick examples: Basically, Fahrenthold wrote, “The biggest pieces of Sanders’s domestic agenda — making college, health care and child care more affordable — seek to capture these industries and convert them to run chiefly on federal money.” Sanders had an entire afternoon Thursday — and the audience of the national media — to explain this and try to sell it to Americans. Sanders hopes victories in Iowa and in the New Hampshire primary will help him undermine Clinton’s dominance and create momentum in a lengthy fight for delegates.

Roosevelt of our time, noting that the president who guided the nation out of the Depression and through most of World War II had an agenda not all that different from his. To explain why he’d probably need to raise taxes even more than the $3.4 trillion (with a “T,” and most targeting the rich or large companies) that he’s already proposed. Clinton in recent days has offered a veiled critique of Sanders for his support of a single-payer health care system, which she says will require middle-class Americans to pay higher taxes. Roosevelt’s push for Social Security, a minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek, Sanders said, were all attacked as “socialist” threats to the American way of life. “All of these programs and many more have become the fabric of our nation and, in fact, the foundation of the middle class,” he told an audience of students and faculty packed into an august hall where heads of state and dignitaries speak when on campus. “Today in America, we not only have massive wealth and income inequality, but a power structure built around that inequality which protects those that have the money.” The speech comes as Sanders is struggling to regain the momentum he built over the summer.

To get a sense, I chatted with Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder, editor, and publisher of Jacobin, a radical socialist magazine that’s become a leading outlet of the American left. Front-runner Hillary Clinton opened up a more than 20-point lead over Sanders a month ago in national polling averages, and the Vermonter has yet to narrow the gap — largely because many Democratic voters question whether he is electable.

Social Security, unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, strong financial institution regulations and other programs that put millions to work were all regarded as socialist in their time, Sanders said. Instead, Sanders barely mentioned these things, preferring instead to stick to extolling the purported benefits of his philosophy, a philosophy that comes from a word Americans are inherently skeptical of. The statistical example that Sanders uses in his stump speech is this: the 15 richest individuals in the United States own more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans, roughly one third of the population. His self-identifying for decades as a socialist is perceived as heavy baggage in a country where the term, when it does come up in politics, is usually in the form of an attack. In explaining his views, Sanders chose in Roosevelt an icon of the Democratic party and sought to connect his values with Democratic voters, presenting himself as a vessel for some of the late president’s unfinished business.

Another point that Sanders raised: despite huge advancements in technology and productivity, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. The speech cited Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” from his 1944 State of the Union address which asserted Americans should have the right to a job with a living wage, health care, education and economic protections for the elderly.

Despite the Sanders campaign catching fire with liberal Democrats since June, a survey of New Hampshire voters released by WBUR a few weeks ago suggested mainstream voters had not changed their outlook. Sanders was not the first to seek a symbolic connection to FDR: Clinton formally kicked off her campaign at New York’s Roosevelt Island last spring in a speech that touched on her “four fights,” a reference to the “four freedoms” Roosevelt laid out in 1941. Half of them still said they would not vote for a socialist, though that total dropped to 40% when the voters were asked about voting for a “democratic socialist,” which is how Sanders describes himself. Sanders has tried recently to draw more contrast with Clinton, but he largely refrained Thursday. “I’m not running for president because it is my turn,” he said, “but because it’s the turn of all of us to live in a nation of hope and opportunity not for some, not for the few, but for all.” Sanders offered both history lessons and specific policy proposals. Socialism has been lost in American politics for a generation, swallowed up by Cold War politics and the broader assault on the labor movement, and the defeat of even the most modest of incremental reform tendencies within liberalism, so just having someone calling themselves a socialist on the national stage is incredible.

Universal government programs, the thinking goes, make for better policy because they are more politically resilient than those targeted at the needy. It gives people like me the chance to contrast our vision of socialism with Sanders’s, while still being broadly supportive of many of the things he wants to do and the impulses of those who support him. In a debate last month, he assured nervous Democrats that Americans would embrace democratic socialism once he had a chance to fully explain it — as he went on to do in the Georgetown speech. But after strong debate performances and a stellar 11-hour testimony before a Congressional Benghazi committee, the former US secretary of state, New York senator and First Lady seems to be back on an easy path toward the nomination.

But who knows, perhaps the surprising number of Americans who have become interested in his candidacy would come around and see things his way and maybe tell a friend. Yet, Sanders is confident that the race isn’t over. “Looking ahead to next year’s general election, Sanders is much more popular than Clinton with independents and he is much better positioned with Republicans”, his campaign says. They are not truly free when they are unemployed or underemployed or when they are exhausted by working 60 or 70 hours a week.” He argued the same theme was at the root of the advocacy of the Rev.

Still, gray skies weren’t much of a deterrent. “I really, really wanted to come,” said Sonja Erchak, a 19-year-old Georgetown sophomore, while standing outside waiting for the speech to start. “I made sure I hadn’t skipped any of my classes the entire semester so if something like this happened I could go.” Christian Mesa, an 18-year-old freshman, was so thrilled to find out Sanders would be making the speech that he staked out the venue the night before to make sure he knew exactly where to line up. (“I heard that people showed up at 3 a.m. to see Hillary [Clinton] last year,” he said in an apparent indicator of the seriousness of the situation.) Mesa arrived with his friends at around 5:45 a.m., landing the first place in line. It is transforming American society.” Sanders also addressed the recent attacks in Paris, urging the U.S. to lead a “new and strong coalition of Western powers, Muslim nations and countries like Russia” to fight the Islamic State in a coordinated way. He said that effort should include the sharing of counter-terror intelligence, stop terrorist financing and end the exporting of “extremist ideologies.” Johnson and Pope Francis, all of whom he argued could also be labeled democratic socialists. “I don’t believe in some foreign ‘ism,’ but I believe deeply in American idealism,” Sanders said, a response to critics who accuse of him of trying to overlay an approach better suited to Denmark and Sweden on America’s political system. The country’s leaders need to be talking about about how to muster scarce government resources to invest in public infrastructure, to provide a social safety net that protects those who fall and to educate Americans so they have a chance in a hyper-competitive global economy.

He expressed bewilderment that his embrace of free public education, universal healthcare and an economic system that does not concentrate so much wealth among so few would be perceived as radical. Sanders has been quick to praise Pope Francis for offering up critiques of unrestrained capitalism, and made sure to mention the pontiff on Thursday. “We need to create a culture which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money,” he said. “We must not accept a nation in which billionaires compete as to the size of their super-yachts while children in America go hungry and veterans sleep out on the streets.” When it came time to articulate his ideology once and for all, Sanders returned to Roosevelt. “Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me.

We want a society in which political democracy is extended into economic and social realms as well, where workers own and control their places of employment, not just get a decent wage. So this speech seems like a smart, strategic political move, but I don’t know if it will catch on.” But many of Sanders’s fans don’t agree. “I think there’s a movement towards it,” Mesa said. “But I think it’s going to be slow and gradual because as Americans we don’t like change so he’s going to have to start off slow and not come off too strong.” Spain’s Mondragon group — a worker’s cooperative that includes the Fagor electrical appliances company, one of whose factories is pictured above — is often invoked as a small-scale model of socialist society.

Similarly, I think just about everyone knows that NATO was an organization created to project US power (the debate happens over whether or not that was a good or bad thing; socialists oppose it). I think a socialist call would focus more on supporting democratic movements, on the tireless fight of the Kurds and other progressive forces in the region, and the need to build solidarity with those forces. Socialists have often compared struggles for reforms that don’t structurally put permanent power in the hands of workers to the plight of Sisyphus: At some point, the boulder starts rolling down the hill.

I’d rather Sanders, in addition to talking more about ownership and control, talk about social democratic reforms and socialist movements as creating freedom for the majority of workers at the expense of only a minority of owners. But there is no doubt that the lot of workers in the places Sanders trumpets is better than that of most workers here, and their labor and left movements are still more vibrant. Provisionally, I would look at the Meidner Plan — the wage-earner scheme pushed by a massive mobilization on the part of the trade union federation in Sweden, which would have gradually socialized most firms in Sweden — as one model.

It made them more radical and able to fight for more and more rights, to the point that workers in Sweden wanted ownership, total control, on top of a generous welfare state. So build movements that fight for immediate demands, demands that might add up to something like a welfare state, but make sure the movement stays militant and have a longer-term horizon of total democracy and see where that leads. There’s sort of a Catch-22 there: Swedish workers wanted more power, so they tried to seize it by buying up shares in companies until the unions had controlling interests in their members’ employers. But precisely because workers didn’t have as much power as capitalists, or as much power as the international bond market, the plan couldn’t come to fruition. Is it possible to pass policies that would radically empower workers through electoral politics, given that workers currently lack that kind of power?

Sometimes workers will be just voting, sometimes they’ll be occupying their factories, sometimes they’ll be at home, since any action is risky and seems futile. How do you think UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn compares with Bernie Sanders, as a politician trying to bring authentically socialist ideas into the political mainstream?

I would put it this way: Jeremy Corbyn has the potential to really democratize and change the Labour Party, to provoke a split from the right and then turn the Labour Party into a vehicle for far-left politics.

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