The popular portrayal of Bernie Sanders, independent US Senator from Vermont, is that he is a left-wing radical socialist, who represents political positions that are way to the left of the American people. He wants to have government ownership of all industries and endangers the American way of life, freedom and capitalism. But as a European, I find this popular depiction very questionable. He is at most a Social Democrat, and I should explain below why I think so.
There is a confusion in America what socialism really is. For starters, socialists don’t always agree among each other what the content of socialism is, but at the very least it contains the state control of the means of production, such as factories, offices, resources and firms. In the more advanced form of socialism, ownership is transferred to the workers. Bernie Sanders has sympathies for it as part of his 12-point proposal for the country, where he pushed for the opportunity for workers to set up worker-owned cooperatives (Sanders 2014). But it is questionable how far he will push it. When push comes to shove, he is a supporter of a social democratic Scandinavian-style welfare state in the form of better education, health care and social service provisions for the general population (Leibovich 2007) rather than the confiscation of companies from the private sector. So where does the fear-mongering about Sanders’ policies come from?
The fear-mongering about the left has roots in the anti-communist fear of the 1920s, when the Palmer raids targeted Communist sympathizers right after the end of World War I. Another bout of anti-communism happened after World War II, when the Cold War with the “evil” communist Soviet Union occurred. Senator McCarthy targeted several filmmakers and academics, who had left-leaning sympathies, and that created this image that communism was something to be feared and hated in the US (Powers 1998). Another blow to left-wing ideas happened with the end of the Cold War in 1991, when thinkers like Francis Fukuyama (1992) proudly proclaimed the end of Communist ideology. Since Communism as it played out in Eastern Europe was a failure, and since China became rich after shedding its communist legacy in the late-1970s, we seem to be living in a world, where we no longer have to worry about the fear of socialism making a comeback.
But this is, of course, ideological nonsense of the worst kind. If there is anything that will help revive socialist ideas among the public, then it is the hubris of neoliberal ideology followed by neoliberal policies, which deregulate markets and hammer working people with lower wages, more unemployment and worse working conditions. The Occupy Wall Street movement developed on the heels of the Great Recession, when the governments bailed out the banks, while passing austerity measures on the population. Attacking the “1%” all of a sudden became part of legitimate discourse, and polls are beginning to indicate that young people, who have not been indoctrinated during the Cold War era, look at the term socialism quite favorably (Democratic Underground 2013).
This policy environment then favors somebody like Bernie Sanders to come in and think about running for president in 2016. Whether he is going to become president or not is not so important as the fact that with his insistent focus on the problems facing America (inequality, poverty, global warming, poor infrastructure, education, pension and health care system etc.) he can force the political class to pay attention to the things that the American people really care about.
Sanders has been the longest-serving independent member in the history of the US Congress. The fact that he has been an independent, and does not fall into the Democratic and Republican Party framework has made him so unacceptable in American politics. But Sanders is, nonetheless, widely popular in his constituency by driving very issue-focused elections, providing excellent constituency services and running on a consistently progressive agenda on behalf of workers, women, minorities, poor people, veterans, children etc. to increase voter turnout. Conservatives know that in order for their policies to succeed, the voter turnout has to be as low as possible. That is what the voter ID laws are all about: preventing poor people from going to vote. For progressives like Sanders, the logic is precisely the other way around. He needs a high voter turnout to enable him to get elected, since his policies are so widely popular.
Sanders most important philosophy is that he does not find it fair to live in a society where so few people have so much power and wealth and so many people own so little. How can a society call itself democratic if almost all of the income gains flow to the richest people? But does that position make him a radical communist? I would tend to say no. His proposals to increase Social Security funding, implement a single-payer health care system, invest in the national infrastructure and break up the big banks, to name a few, are fairly moderate social democratic policies that would have been considered very common during the Eisenhower era of the 1950s. Those ideas appear radical only in today’s context, when the national discourse, the news media and the wealth in society is so deeply controlled by the nation’s oligarchs.
Is Sanders really to the left of what most American people believe in? This is nonsense. Polls show that many people believe in a single-payer health care system, affordable higher education, a massive jobs program, renewable energy and more Social Security. The major problem is not the policy content, but the practical feasibility of getting these policies implemented.
Americans are generally willing to embrace real change. But the problem is that in the current political configuration not much change is possible. Obama may be a progressive at heart, but in terms of policy he is a pragmatic conservative, who does not want to rock the boat. The health care reform and stimulus package has used up his entire political capital, and he gave up to the Republican Congress for most of the remainder of his presidency. Some people would argue that Republican obstructionism prevents him from accomplishing better results for the American people, but that is a cheap excuse. If Obama wanted he could use the bully pulpit of his presidency to challenge Congress to take on a more progressive agenda and call out the Republicans for not moving on that agenda.
In the mean time, as Congress is obstructing progressive change fewer people are going to vote, because they don’t feel like they can be part of the political process. It may be true that many people are angry and fed up about declining real wages and more income inequality, but they feel like their vote does not count for anything anyway, so they will end up staying home during election time. And as I pointed out, lower voting turnout benefits the elites.
The difficulty of any progressive agenda is that the power structure in the form of the corporate media (which only report horse races like Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton) and the billions of dollars of lobbying money to politicians holds the political system in a very comfortable gridlock. Among the rich, there might be a few sympathetic billionaires that will use fairly left-leaning rhetoric, like Nick Hanauer (2014), who warned his fellow plutocrats of pitchforks that are coming their way. Warren Buffett thought that he should not pay less taxes than his secretary (Isidore 2013), and Bill Gates was sympathetic to Thomas Piketty, the premium scholar on wealth inequality. Those relatively progressive billionaires might be allies of the left, but they are unreliable. Gates (2014) liked Piketty’s critique of inequality but did not want to pay more taxes. Buffett and Hanauer are willing to be critical of their unrestrained wealth accumulation, but would they fund political candidates to impose higher taxes on them as eagerly as the Koch brothers and the Waltons would do to lower their taxes? No, the power of self-interest generally works stronger than the enlightened self-interest, which is good for publicity, but never part of a serious agenda.
The political cash of right-wing billionaires, on the other hand, is quite staggering thanks to the Citizens United and McCutcheon Supreme court decision to allow unlimited sums of money to be spent on elections and candidates (e.g. Kennedy 2013). Workers, seniors, students or environmental groups have no ability to match these extreme contributions. The top players are picking their referees, and Americans are clearly worse off for it, and we may expect voter turnout to decrease to even lower levels.
Implementing more socially just policies require a strong grassroots movement. Ralph Nader (2014) wants about 1% of the population to organize local activism in front of Congressional offices to achieve progressive pushback. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 has shown that once there are people, who occupy a physical space, there are opportunities to build a bigger movement out of this, because people can have a sense of not being alone about their skeptical views on inequality and capitalism.
Where does that leave Bernie Sanders? He needs to take advantage of the popular mood of dissatisfaction in this country and provide the needed alternative voice of the country. Whether he wants to run as a Democrat or as an independent candidate is not as important as the fact that he runs and the ability to have a national discourse about real issues and problems that are facing the American people. Sanders argued that he is only willing to run if he sees the huge grassroots support, since he is not relying on the support of the billionaire class that he wants to take on (Politicus USA 2014). But just waiting for the grassroots support will also not have energetic outcomes if there is a lack of leadership. If he were to provide progressives with the leadership they need, then a grassroots movement could emerge out of this, and deliver reforms that Americans so desperately need.