On Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman moderates a 28-minute discussion between two economists, New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman and professor emeritus Richard Wolff, about the nuances of socialism. Unlike most ‘debates’ on TV that are really shouting matches, since this is on Democracy Now!, you get a sober and thoughtful discussion about what Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism means.
Krugman says that Sanders does not fit the definition of socialist and that he is really a social democrat in the European tradition. He says that while he agrees with pretty much all of Sanders’s policy positions, he does not understand why he calls himself a democratic socialist because that just makes his task of selling his ideas to the public harder because many people have an instinctive negative reaction to the word socialism.
Wolff says that there is no agreed upon definition of socialism and Sanders’s milder form of it fits under that umbrella term and has resulted in people, especially young people, now having a much better opinion of socialism. Wolff also makes the point that the reason that there is such a hysterical response by the liberal media to the success of Sanders is because for a long time they have seen themselves as anchoring ‘the left’ and being the vanguard for progressive ideas (at least progressive in their own eyes). They now suddenly find that there is a big movement on their left and that they are really in the center or the center-right. They cannot seem to come to terms with the idea that rather than being the people driving social change, they are now the reactionaries who, in Bob Dylan’s words in The times they are a changing, ‘stand in the doorway and block up the hall” while there is a battle outside that is raging.
This article makes a point similar to Wolff’s and describes how these people still don’t get it that people like Joe Biden no longer represent the left wing of politics and that prevents them from settling on a centrist or center-right candidate who might have had more success than Biden.
The party’s aging insiders instead looked at the field and decided to get behind the guy who currently reminds them most of the good times they had with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In the process, they ignored the candidates who most resemble 1992 Clinton and 2008 Obama in more germane ways—age, oratorical skill, grassroots following, history of winning votes from important geographic and demographic groups, etc. All those candidates would have changed the party in some way if they attained power, but they all would have changed it into something that Chris Matthews and Joe Lockhart would (or at least should) have recognized. Instead, the old guard made a choice that was as much about familiarity and cronyism as ideology—and now are left, like Biden on the debate stage, with nothing to do but huff and puff about things that happened decades ago as the rest of the party moves on.
While I understand and appreciate Krugman’s point, I think that that ship has sailed. Sanders has unabashedly called himself a democratic socialist all his life and won election after election with that label and he is not going to change now. For him to suddenly announce that he is now a social democrat would suggest that he is trimming his sails to the wind and would go against the long-term consistency that creates such a strong sense of authenticity that draws people to him. Even Chris Christie recognizes this.
For example, in the South Carolina debate, even though he was red-baited by the moderators and other candidates, Sanders went out of his way to point out that the US has overthrown so many governments around the world, something that no major presidential candidate has done before because they all genuflect at the altar of American goodness. Then on the question of whether the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem should be reversed, he went out of his way to call Netanyahu a racist authoritarian and gave a stirring call for the need to treat the Palestinian people with the respect and dignity they deserve. The response of progressives has been very positive.
The senator’s remarks sparked immediate praise from progressives, political activists, and journalists.
“I just want to make it clear that almost NO ONE in American politics brings up Palestinian human rights without being forced to,” tweeted the Hill‘s Krystal Ball. “MASSIVE KUDOS to Bernie Sanders.”
The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald said on Twitter that Sanders’ answer showed why the senator is unique among the Democratic candidates.
“Is there even a small chance that any candidate other than Sanders would speak so powerfully about the oppression of Palestinians and how it means we need to re-think support for Israel?” asked Greenwald. “I can’t think of one.”
John Cassidy of The New Yorker noted that Sanders has been a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights.
“Well done Bernie Sanders for bringing up Palestinian rights and the situation in Gaza,” said Cassidy. “He’s been consistent on it.”
The Atlantic‘s Peter Beinart said that “the audience cheered when Bernie Sanders spoke about Palestinian rights because ordinary Democrats believe in Palestinian rights.”
“And because they know that, even in the Democratic Party, acknowledging Palestinian humanity requires political courage,” Beinart added.
John Nichols of The Nation said he had never heard a presidential candidate give that impassioned a defense of the Palestinian people.
“Senator Bernie Sanders just gave the best Israel-Palestine answer ever delivered by a serious contender in an American presidential debate,” said Nichols.
Sanders did not have to say either of those things in the debate and he must have known that it would hurt him with the jingoists who think that America never does anything wrong and with the Israel lobby, and both groups will up their attacks on him. But he said them anyway. Why? I think that it is because he thinks that those are important ideas that need to be more widely known and debated and he wanted to get them out to a national audience. Like with his other progressive proposals that have now gone mainstream within the Democratic party, Sanders knows that to penetrate through the fog of American politics, you have to keep hammering away at the same message over and over.