Yesterday, Bernie Sanders gave his speech on what he means by calling himself as a Democratic socialist. He identified it squarely with the polices advocated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt following the Great Depression, by Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society initiative, and incorporating the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., thus highlighting that his vision of socialism lies well within the mainstream of American politics.
Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.
And that is what we have to do today.
And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called “socialist.” Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was “socialist.” The concept of the “minimum wage” was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as “socialist.” Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as “socialist.” Yet, these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.
Thirty years later, in the 1960s, President Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to millions of senior citizens and families with children, persons with disabilities and some of the most vulnerable people in this county. Once again these vitally important programs were derided by the right wing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life.
In 1944, in his State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt outlined what he called a second Bill of Rights. This is one of the most important speeches ever made by a president but, unfortunately, it has not gotten the attention that it deserves.
In that remarkable speech this is what Roosevelt stated, and I quote: “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.” End of quote. In other words, real freedom must include economic security. That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time that we did.
In that speech, Roosevelt described the economic rights that he believed every American was entitled to: The right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care.
So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that; “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.
Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.
And he ended up with a statement of his beliefs.
So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:
I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.
I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.
I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes – if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally pay the taxes they should.
I don’t believe in special treatment for the top 1%, but I do believe in equal treatment for African-Americans who are right to proclaim the moral principle that Black Lives Matter.
I despise appeals to nativism and prejudice, and I do believe in immigration reform that gives Hispanics and others a pathway to citizenship and a better life.
I don’t believe in some foreign “ism”, but I believe deeply in American idealism.
Those who are older will frame socialism within the historical context of Karl Marx’s theories and the practices of the Soviet Union and the countries in what was called the Soviet bloc and try to distinguish it from that. But for people under the age of 30, that comparison is not the significant one because the Cold War was over before they were born. As this NPR report says, for them it means “people, like, working towards the common good” and “attempt equality for everyone, like, redistribution of wealth” and are more likely to vote for a socialist. For that younger generation, Sanders has managed to frame socialism as something that means less inequality, a basic safety net for everyone, health care as a right, more compassion for those less fortunate, and a government that works for the people and does not protect the interests of the oligarchy.
That may be the lasting legacy of Sanders, that he identified socialism with values that young people particularly find appealing.