Yesterday, America’s second-most-famous self-identified democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders (he’s no AOC, but he’s pretty famous), announced his 2020 presidential candidacy, and as my colleague Eric Levitz observes, he’s saying the “same thing he said while selling Eugene Debs documentaries door-to-door in the 1970s, or running for mayor of Burlington in 1980s, or filibustering a budget deal in 2010, or fomenting ’political revolution’ three years ago.”
And while Sanders hasn’t changed his socialist principles or much of anything else about his pitch, perhaps the most commonly uttered remark about what has changed since 2016 is that the Democratic Party has moved in his direction. But while the large 2020 field is indeed, for the most part, cozying up to Bernie’s “populist” rhetoric and policy prescriptions, that’s not necessarily true of the socialist self-designation, despite joint efforts by elements of the left and the entire, unified Republican Party to claim the red flag (the property of democratic socialists long before the advent of communism) for the Donkey Party. Indeed, more and more 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including some who aren’t old-school Clintonian centrists, are making it clear that the economic system they favor is not socialism but that ol’ devil capitalism.
Beto O’Rourke, perhaps the potential candidate in the 2020 field most likely to pose a threat to Sanders’s youth support, clearly isn’t enamored of the s-word:
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a 2020 presidential hopeful, told reporters at a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday that she is “not a democratic socialist …”
“I believe that what voters do want is they want to know that whoever is going to lead understands that in America today, not everyone has an equal opportunity and access to a path to success, ” she added, saying U.S. needs to “course correct” for income inequality.
And in this respect, O’Rourke and Harris are both emulating the candidate who probably represents the strongest threat to Sanders’s electoral base, Elizabeth Warren, who has long professed her tough love for capitalism, as Josh Barro noted last year:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent remark that she is a “capitalist to my bones” is being treated as some kind of news, even though it is consistent with the policies and rhetoric the liberal Massachusetts senator has espoused for her entire career.
Warren’s major policy project is to make markets work right for regular people. If you want to make markets work well, then obviously you are in favor of markets and capitalism.
All these left-of-center Democrats, of course, are standing in the tradition of the party leader who arguably first introduced a serious social democratic strain to American liberalism, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is often credited with saving capitalism from its excesses — and heading off more radically egalitarian challenges to the system like Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” plan.
No, the term “socialism” doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of Americans the way it did during the Cold War, and that’s a good thing for anyone who believes the promise of this country requires a less neurotically intense allergy to government activism in the national interest. But Democrats are making it clear that support for social democratic staples like single-payer health care or aggressive bank regulation are drawn from the practical needs of the citizenry, not perusal of dusty pamphlets from the early-20-century British Fabian Society or any other ideological template. Perhaps Sanders and AOC will yet make American politics safe for socialism writ large. But in the meantime, a progressive take on democratic capitalism is likely to prevail in the marketplace of ideas.