Poll Watch: Democrats, Even Clinton Supporters, Warm to Socialism

21 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

Senator Bernie Sanders’s speech on Thursday explaining his democratic socialist ideology carried little risk among supporters and other Democrats: A solid majority of them have a positive impression of socialism, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released this month. “Now I don’t believe in some foreign ‘ism,’ but I believe deeply in American idealism,” Bernie Sanders told a crowd gathered for his much anticipated speech, defending and explaining his often misunderstood political ideology at Georgetown on Thursday.”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. Fifty-six percent of those Democratic primary voters questioned said they felt positive about socialism as a governing philosophy, versus 29 percent who took a negative view.

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. The self described democratic socialist explained just what exactly that moniker means and outlined America’s deep history with democratic socialism, calling for a return to FDR-level public works programs and public investment: Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. 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. He calls himself a “democratic socialist” – nothing spectacular in Europe, but in America, chances are that half the country may consider him a dangerous left-wing freak and thus unelectable.

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. Sanders argued that the redistribution of wealth was at the heart of the American social contract, seeking to link himself with the legacies of the Rev.

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.

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. Sanders explained how his current platform, including his support for policies like the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, is rooted in the same derided “socialism” that brought on popular progressive principles like the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, and anti-child labor laws. Johnson in the 1960s, Democratic presidents whose social reforms have once been demonized but are now widely accepted as unalterable contributions to the American support system. “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” Sanders said. “Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.” In Sanders’ eyes, Americans today live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. “There is something profoundly wrong when 58 percent of all new income since the Wall Street crash has gone to the top one percent”, Sanders said, calling it a “massive re-distribution of wealth” in the wrong direction. The applause he drew should come as little surprise: Sixty-nine percent of Sanders supporters see socialism in a positive light, versus just 21 percent who view it negatively.

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. Actions to strengthen the social safety net were decried by conservatives at the time, Sanders said, but today make up “the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.” After cataloging a litany of achievements that Sanders ascribed to Roosevelt in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the Vermont senator delivered the punchline: “By the way, almost everything he proposed was called ‘socialist.’” Pausing for dramatic effect, Sanders winked at the crowd as the room erupted in cheers. 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. 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.

Once again these vitally important programs were derided by the right wing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life.” Marking the 50th anniversary of the historic health insurance programs this year, 73 percent of Americans now describe Medicare as a “very important government program,” while 63 percent say the same about Medicaid. 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.

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. The university, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher education in the US, is an expensive and prestigious elite college, regularly visited by international heads of state, US politicians and religious leaders. 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. Although 59 percent of Democrats told Gallup in a June poll they’d consider voting for a socialist, more than half of all Americans say they wouldn’t, explaining that they’d rather vote for an atheist or Muslim. 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.

But the Sanders campaign surprised experts over the past months that the long-time Independent is able to take the fight over the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s frontrunner. The two Democratic candidates differ in how much to raise the federal minimum wage, although both support an increase, in stark contrast with nearly every Republican candidate.

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.

Socialism gets some of its highest marks from Democratic voters under 30, 63 percent of whom rate it positively, and from another crucial demographic that has largely eluded Mr. In a new Rolling Stone interview out this week, Sanders vowed to immediately hold bad actors on Wall Street accountable. “On day one, I am appointing a special committee to investigate the crimes on Wall Street,” the populist promised. 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. A 2013 poll found that regulating financial services and products was seen as either “important” or “very important” to more than 90 percent of American voters.

He said that effort should include the sharing of counter-terror intelligence, stop terrorist financing and end the exporting of “extremist ideologies.” 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. Well, workers’ cooperatives are great, and I think Sanders is genuinely interested in the form, but they’ve been embraced by people of all sorts of political tendencies over the years — many were even created in Franco’s Spain.

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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