Is Bernie Really a Socialist? Does It Matter?
In 2016, few thought Bernie Sanders had a chance to win the nomination, much less the presidency, so they didn’t take his identity as a socialist as seriously. Now that Bernie has a good chance of winning the nomination, we are clearly in a whole new territory that we don’t understand and can’t predict, which makes all of us jittery.
The primary goal is to defeat Trump. But can we do that AND elect a democratic socialist at the same time – one who pledges to transform America’s hyper-capitalism into something that more closely resembles European social democracies like Denmark and Sweden? And can Bernie win the White House and also help the Democratic Party maintain its majority in the House and perhaps even win a majority in the Senate?
For a course I’m teaching, I’ve been accumulating articles and columns that address these matters, pasted below.
Republicans are saying that he’s a dangerous socialist and lots of liberals and progressives are saying that he’s not really a socialist, but a social democrat, assuming that people know the difference. Many Democrats, fearful of the word “socialist,” but predicting that Bernie will get the nomination, hope to redefine Bernie’s views as a modern version of the New Deal. That’s essentially what Paul Krugman did in his column this week. He wonders why Bernie insists on calling himself a democratic socialist when he’s, in fact, a Denmark-style social democrat, and concludes that its mostly Bernie’s nostalgia for Debsian ideas and his curmudgeon personality.
Some Democrats and liberals, assuming Bernie will get the nomination, are urging him to soften his use of “socialism” and even say that he’s already started pivoting by downplaying Medicare for All (although it didn’t help with the Nevada Culinary Workers union), while others argue that he’ll lose his loyal base of supporters if they think he’s just another politician pandering to polls and undermining his authenticity.
Bernie's 2016 and current campaigns, along with the upsurge of activism since Occupy Wall Street, has moved the Democratic Party and the national debate to the left, which is good public policy, but folks disagree on whether that’s good politics. Klobuchar is to the left today of where Obama was in 2008 and 2012, but she (along with Biden and Mayor Pete) are distancing themselves from Sanders, concerned that they will all be painted with the “socialist” brush. The Republicans are already engaged in weaponizing the word “socialism,” painting all the Democrats as wanting to turn the US into Venezuela or Cuba.
My friend Michael Kazin (and coeditor of the new book, "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism - American Style") argued in the New York Times yesterday that, whether or not Sanders wins the nomination or beats Trump, Bernie has “already won” because he’s transformed the debate. To many that is the definition of a Pyrrhic victory.
Republican anti-Trumpers like David Frum, Charlie Sykes, and Max Boot, along with many Democrats (including Michelle Goldberg, writing in 2016, and Eric Alterman, writing a year ago), worry that Bernie can’t win with the socialist label, but others, like Russell Berman in The Atlantic this week, say that Bernie has normalized the idea of socialism, so that it has gone mainstream, despite the Gallup polls showing that most Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a socialist for president. I was one of those who sought to mainsteam/normalize Bernie’s socialism, in several articles in 2015 and 2016, by making the case that, according to polls, most Americans agreed with his policy agenda, even if they didn’t think of themselves as socialists.
So far, neither Sanders’ Democratic rivals nor the Trumpites have revealed the opposition research they have about Bernie. The rival Democrats don’t want to alienate Bernie’s supporters. The Republicans are, for the most part, holding their fire. They want Bernie to win the nomination because they think he’s beatable and vulnerable to the attacks they’ll unveil once he gets the nomination, about his days in Moscow and Nicaragua, his ties to the SWP, and his decades-ago ideas about nutjob psychologist Wilhelm Reich, among other subjects.
But a number of liberal journalists have begun writing about these allegedly vulnerable aspects of Bernie’s past as a warning, such as Jonathan Chait’s recent article saying that nominating Bernie would be insane. Similarly, some in the right-wing media have already been attacking Bernie as a socialist and a communist, and of course Trump has done this in his last two SOTU speeches and at every campaign rally. Kevin Williams wrote this in the right-wing magazine, National Review: "It would take a lot to make President Trump seem like the 'normal' candidate in a general election. But Sanders might just pull it off."
I’m teaching a new course on democratic socialism and we’re discussing these questions, like:
• Is Sanders a socialist or a social democrat? Does it matter?
• Can a self-proclaimed democratic socialist be elected president this year?
• How do we interpret polls showing that a growing number of Americans say the prefer socialism to capitalism?
• How do we interpret polls showing that a majority of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a socialist for president?
• How did Sanders, AOC, and progressive activists move the Democratic Party to the left?
• Will having a socialist had the head of the ticket doom many Democrats running for Congress, state legislatures, and other offices?
• What will corporate/Wall Street Democrats do if Sanders gets the nomination? Does it matter?
• If there’s a brokered convention, and Sanders isn’t the nominee, will his supporters embrace the Democratic candidate?
• Can Sanders be an effective president (or more or less effective than another Democrat), even if the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress? Can he be effective (or more or less effective than another Democrat), if the Republicans control at least one house of Congress?
• Are Sanders’ ideas acceptable to a majority of Americans, even if he’s not the right messenger? Would another candidate with similar ideas (i.e. Warren) be able to turn those radical ideas into acceptable ideas?
• What is it about the structure and/or culture of the Democratic Party that it is so divided? (Of course, one could ask the same question about the Republicans in 2016).
• What lessons should liberals and progressives learn from the experiences of 2016, 2018, 2020?
Here’s a short reading list.
· Bouie, “Why Bernie Sanders Isn’t Afraid of ‘Socialism’” (NYT, June 17, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/17/opinion/bernie-sanders-socialism.html
· Starr, “Why Liberals Should Beware Sanders’ Socialism” (Politico, February 22, 2016) https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/02/bernie-sanders-2016-socialism-213667
· Cox, “Social Programs Are Not Socialism” (Public Seminar, February 9, 2020) https://publicseminar.org/essays/social-programs-are-not-socialism/
· Boot, “Bernie Sanders is a risk we can’t run at this moment of national peril” (Washington Post, Feb. 12, 2020) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/12/bernie-sanders-is-risk-we-cant-run-this-moment-national-peril/
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