Bernie Sanders, socialism, and political labels in America today

In a speech at Georgetown University later today, Bernie Sanders will explain what he means by the term ‘democratic socialist’, the label that he chooses to apply to himself.

Political labels like democratic, conservative, liberal, socialist, libertarian, etc. are pretty malleable and cover a wide spectrum of policy implications. There has been considerable debate as to whether the kind of society that Sanders advocates for is really socialist since he has not called for the nationalization of the commanding sectors of the economy. He has spoken of the Scandinavian countries like Denmark as his model for what socialism looks like but some Danes don’t see themselves as socialist.

Democratic socialists endorse some government control, such as ownership of natural resources, key industries and infrastructure, but they also want workers to exert independent economic influence, said Samuel Goldman, a political theory professor at George Washington University. Some European countries established elements of democratic socialism in the 1950s through 1970s, he said.

Goldman said Scandinavian countries are considered examples of capitalist welfare — not democratic socialism — because their governments don’t own significant areas of the economy, such as airlines or auto companies.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, speaking earlier this month at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, sought to correct the record about his country, saying “some people in the U.S. associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” Vox reported.

“Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy,” Rasmussen said. “Denmark is a market economy.”

Goldman said Sanders likely is trying to differentiate himself from Democrats over the last 20 to 30 years who haven’t seemed primarily concerned about the economy. By calling himself a democratic socialist, Sanders is saying his first priority is the economy and improving conditions for the working and middle class, he said.

In the US context, it is perhaps more useful to see the candidates with regard to what they see as the role of the government in people’s lives. What we have here is an oligarchy where a handful of individuals and corporations and firms control a vastly disproportionate amount of income and wealth and consequently wield enormous political and economic power. The key question is what should be the role of the government in the relationship between them and ordinary people.

On one extreme are those who essentially argue that we are all equal because on paper and in legal theory the richest and poorest have the same rights and privileges and so the government should keep out of things as much as possible. Such people want to vastly reduce or even eliminate the role of government, especially when it comes to oversight and regulations, and let the ‘invisible hand of the market’ be the decider.

This is, of course, a convenient self-serving fantasy of the oligarchy because we are not equal at all whatever the constitution might say. What Sanders and his supporters are arguing is that the scales are vastly tilted in favor of the oligarchy. The role of the government is to intervene to try and redress the imbalance by increasing its role so that it can rein in the powerful and give those who are not wealthy a chance at a decent life. He is not calling for the take over of major sectors of the economy. All he is saying is that there needs to be careful oversight and regulation of the major economic sectors so that inequality is reduced and ordinary people have some power over their lives. Government is the only thing that prevents the oligarchy from running rampant and continuing to squeeze the people, thus increasing the wealth and income inequalities even more.

Even his biggest proposal, Medicaid for all, does not call for the takeover of the health care industry. Doctors and hospitals and other health care services will function as before. What it will do is eliminate the private parasitic health insurance industry that deserves to go because it adds absolutely no value to the system but leeches off it.

Ultimately the main purpose of these political labels is not to specify detailed policy outcomes but to demonstrate an overall attitude about the proper role of government. In the process, it can also be used as political weapons. What Sanders has done is hugely increase the Overton window in the US. It was not that long ago that right-wingers had succeeded in demonizing the label ‘liberal’ so much that feckless Democrats shied away from it. By proudly embracing the socialist label and not suffering an instant kiss of death, and in fact making it seem more favorable in the public’s eye, Sanders has shown that when one proudly acknowledges what one stands for, people respect you.

On the other side, Republicans politicians are by themselves making the term ‘conservative’ into one that is associated with all manner of ugly policies and attitudes. These people are really dangerous right-wing radicals but by insisting on calling themselves conservatives, they are bringing that proud and honorable political tradition into disrepute, just as socialists and liberals emerge from the shadows and regain their luster, especially among the young, although they still has some way to go to be fully accepted.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    For truth in advertising, The Republican Party should change its name to The Silly Party (still huge understatement). Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel would wipe the floor with Trump and Carson.

  2. mnb0 says

    “corporations and firms control a vastly disproportionate amount of …”
    I remember my AHA-Erlebnis, when I realized that big businesses actually have a lot of power -- power defined as the capability to force people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. If we accept Macchiavelli and Montesqieu we must ask ourselves how to maintain check and balances.
    It’s remarkable that a Dutch right wing politician (what we Dutch call a liberal),

    did so much in this respect as a European Commissioner for Competition.

    “they are bringing that proud and honorable political tradition into disrepute”
    The irony is that in the classical meaning of the word I’m actually a conservative and that that’s exactly why I vote for a radical left party.

    #1: In The Netherlands and Germany Sanders would be called a social-democrat as well.

    #3: Around 1980 the income gap in communist Eastern-Europe countries was bigger than in capitalist Western-Europe countries.
    Communism always has been meaningless in practice.

  3. lorn says

    It is all a matter of definitions:
    People: corporations and individuals wealthy enough to significantly effect the making, interpretation, and enforcement of law.

    Progress: Benefiting the people (see above).

    Good for the economy: Economically benefiting the people. (See above)

    Keep this in mind when contemplating the phases “We the people” and “More perfect union”.


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