Universal health care, tuition-free public college, a giant hike in the federal minimum wage, and a guaranteed federal job for anyone who is involuntarily unemployed are all very popular ideas in the United States. The word socialism is not.
Recent polls have found that a majority of American voters support (at least some version of) Medicare for All, free public college, a $15 minimum wage, and a federal jobs guarantee. By contrast, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed just 18 percent of voters expressing a positive view of “socialism” — even as 55 percent of the same poll’s respondents said the federal government should do more to solve problems and help people. That basic finding has been replicated by other pollsters: While nearly half of younger voters approve of socialism, a large majority of the general public opposes the concept.
For this reason, the American right has worked tirelessly for decades to brand any proposal for expanding positive economic rights — such as the right to Social Security, affordable child care, subsidized health insurance, workplace protections, etc. — as socialist.
Now, for some other reason, Bernie Sanders is doing the same.
It’s hardly news, of course, that the Vermont senator has an idiosyncratic conception of “democratic socialism” — one that does not involve the abolition of profit or worker ownership of the means of production. But on CNN Monday night, Sanders not only disavowed his decades-old calls for the nationalization of major industries but suggested that democratic socialism is effectively a synonym for (the left-wing of) New Deal liberalism.
These remarks came in response to a question from a Harvard sophomore who asked Sanders, “My father’s family left Soviet Russia in 1979, fleeing from some of the very same socialist policies that you seem eager to implement in this country. So my question is how do you rectify your notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it?”
The senator responded by reiterating his commitment to democracy and disdain for the Soviet Union, before saying,
What do I mean when I talk about democratic socialism? It certainly is not the authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union and in other communist countries. This is what it means.
It means that we cherish, among other things, our Bill of Rights. And Franklin Roosevelt made this point … in 1944, in a State of the Union Address that never got a whole lot of attention. This is what he said, basically — it was a very profound speech toward the end of World War II. He said, “You know, we’ve got a great Constitution. Bill of Rights protects your freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and all that stuff. Great. But you know what it doesn’t protect? It doesn’t protect and guarantee you economic rights.”
Here Sanders was referencing Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights — the outline for American social democracy that the Democratic Party’s patron saint sketched one year before his death. And the speech in which Roosevelt articulated this vision reads like an eloquent summation of the Vermont senator’s worldview:
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights — among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however — as our industrial economy expanded — these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.
“Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day, these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
• The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
• The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
• The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
• The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
• The right of every family to a decent home;
• The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
• The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
• The right to a good education.
In other words, Sanders is an admirer of European social democracy who sees FDR’s Second Bill of Rights (not Karl Marx’s Das Kapital) as the seminal articulation of his political philosophy.
This was a fine and politically deft response to the sophomore’s query. But it invites this question: If this what the senator truly believes, why does he call himself a socialist?
After all, Sanders clearly appreciates the political benefits of making putatively “radical” ideas sound as mundane and familiar as possible. If he didn’t, he might have invoked Gunnar Myrdal’s writings instead of Roosevelt’s — or have portrayed his program as utopian, rather than as a description of Western European reality. It makes sense that Sanders does not identify as a social democrat, since the term has no popular resonance in the United States. But why not self-describe as a “New Deal Democrat” — a term that a decent chunk of Republican voters once identified with — instead of as a “democratic socialist,” a phrase that a significant portion of the American electorate associates with foreign powers hostile to the United States?
In most other contexts, the left works to redefine the terms of America’s ideological debate rightward — which is to say, to raise the threshold for what qualifies as “liberal,” “progressive,” or “left wing” so as to denaturalize the aberrant conservatism of modern U.S. politics. In a global context, the left argues, the Democrats are really a “center-right” party. Viewed historically, Barack Obama is best understood as a “Rockefeller Republican.” Kamala Harris might identify as a progressive — and she may claim to support a variety of social-democratic programs — but given the context of her record, she (and all other Democratic candidates save Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) is a “centrist.” As for the contemporary GOP, it is not a conservative party so much as a “white nationalist” one.
All of these rebrandings are consistent with the objective of moving the boundaries of permissible debate leftward: If Mitch McConnell is a far-right extremist who should not be welcome in polite society, and Obama represents the outer bound of respectable conservatism, then Sanders’s platform is centrist — and collective ownership of the means of production slips into the far-left frame of the “Overton window.”
Yet when it comes to the “socialism” of Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, many on the left embrace the opposite logic: Rather than insisting on an exceptionally robust definition of socialism, they cheer as Sanders does the right’s work for it and dresses up welfare liberalism in socialist garb. This makes it a bit easier for conservatives (like the one who red-baited Sanders on CNN Monday night) to divert attention from the mainstream nature of the left’s concrete economic proposals toward the radical associations of its self-selected brand name. (It seems likely that a world in which Sanders identified as a New Deal Democrat would be one in which major newspapers ran somewhat fewer columns that boil down to “Venezuela tried out Bernie Sanders’s policies and look what happened.”)
For organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America or magazines like Jacobin that are invested in popularizing genuinely anti-capitalist ideology, this gambit makes tactical sense. Associating socialism with universal health care may make the latter appear less mainstream in the immediate term, but it also has the effect of making the former seem more mainstream in the long run. And since the political costs of the S-word don’t appear too severe (Sanders is still a relatively popular Democratic politician, Medicare for All still polls reasonably well even after the DSA’s embrace of it) and Republicans are going to attack liberals as socialists anyway, why not leverage the broad appeal of welfare-state expansion into greater support for socialism? After all, it was European socialists who built the modern welfare state, and programs like single-payer health care really do embody socialist principles. Why not help normie progressives see that, in order to prepare them for the moment of social democracy’s inevitable crisis?
Nevertheless, if you aren’t actually interested in socializing the economy’s commanding heights — or, at least, are more interested in maximizing your own popularity and public support for the concept of positive economic rights — then describing yourself and your program as socialist makes little tactical sense. Sanders might feel he has no choice but to stick with the label he embraced as a radical activist and retained throughout a long and successful political career. But he could distance himself from the brand somewhat without wholly abandoning it, by owning the title of “New Deal liberal” and insisting that his two political identities are one and the same.
Sanders’s refusal to distance himself from the socialist label invites the suspicion — or, for some, the hope — that he does not really mean what he says, that even as he preaches the left-wing of the possible, he dreams of the final victory of labor over capital.
But it seems more likely that he’s just a social democrat with a sentimental attachment to an electorally suboptimal ideological label.