Bernie Sanders and Social Democracy


When not ignoring Bernie Sanders, many political analysts think his chances as Democratic candidate for president amount to a pipe dream. In October, Max Brantley wrote for the Little Rock-based Arkansas Times that “pragmatism” governs his preference for Hillary Clinton.

Polls fluctuate but in mid-January, potential Iowa caucus-goers were polling in favor of Sanders over Clinton by several points, with Martin O’Malley lagging far behind.

Unlike his opponents in both parties, Sen. Sanders is reminding us that a radical redistribution of wealth over the past generation has seriously hurt middle class and working America. He argues we must oppose blind faith in budget-cutting, deregulation, privatization, and corporate philanthropy (to see where this dangerous new-normal is leading us, consider revelations about Flint Michigan’s water supply and Pfizer’s pricing decisions—to say nothing about the ramifications of “gun rights” and the Hobby Lobby case).

Bernie Sanders is not a “Democratic socialist,” as Brantley called him (and Sanders is on record calling himself).

Democratic socialists want political democracy in a socialist economy. Social democrats call for a mix of socialism and capitalism: Government should protect the right of private businesses to compete with each other but never at the expense of consumer safety, fair working conditions, and a clean environment. Private banks should not be allowed to charge businesses and consumers usurious rates of interest. A healthy, productive, and secure life is the birthright of every citizen.

Sen. Sanders has a social democratic agenda: Universal health care, free public education, a raise in the minimum wage, expanded Social Security. He also thinks that America deserves a sustainable energy system and a functioning and safe infrastructure. He opposes a bloated military budget, the War on Drugs, and all forms of police brutality.

All can be done by raising taxes on the richest Americans and by overturning Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling that the influence of money in politics is constitutional (by the way, Sander’s position on these matters merely reflects public opinion).

Social democracy is not unattainable. Witness the history of social welfare in countries that include Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Nigeria, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan. By the way, this is an incomplete list.

True, social democracy is now in jeopardy across the world, a process that began in Great Britain during the 1980s. But in many lands, it’s still politically risky to advocate junking social welfare institutions altogether. And social democracy is on the come-back in Latin America.

While Senator Sanders was in Congress for nearly 25 years, the political revolution he’s calling for can’t be accomplished by a single person without an informed citizenry also pushing for it. Politics is not simply a matter of winning an election or raising money.

Taking a cue from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign is part of a long tradition in US politics.

In the Elections of 1892 and 1896 the People’s Party, backed by Midwestern and Southern farmers angered by the course of the Industrial Revolution, faced off against the Democrats and Republicans. While the Populist platform was appropriated by the Democrats and undermined by white racists in the South, it influenced state and federal regulation of big business, the Interstate Commerce Commission for example.

The Election of 1912 saw a failed challenge by the Progressive Party, led by former GOP president Theodore Roosevelt. He backed a number of social welfare programs, government regulation of big business, and restrictions on campaign contributions.

In the Election of 1920, a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party got over 900,000 votes—when he was in federal prison for opposing US participation in World War I. Imagine that!

It was during the Great Depression that America came the closest it’s ever been to having real social democracy. Leading a Democratic Party insurgency, Theodore Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin won the presidential elections of 1932, was reelected four years later in a landslide, and won majorities in 1940 and 1944 (before the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms).

Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice-president during World War II, mounted a third party challenge in 1948 under another Progressive Party. Wallace won under three percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes, but its platform to strengthen the New Deal, enforce civil rights legislation, and avert a cold war with the Soviet Union was supported by urban workers and southern blacks.

But why do progressives always lose presidential elections in the United States? The Election of 2000 is often cited as evidence that third parties throw a presidential election to one or the other big party. Well, this is true. But the fault actually lies in the fact that our “two-party system” is rigged in favor of people who generally share the same views how US society should be structured—and who don’t want it to change.

Looking at this year’s candidates, GOP and Democratic, we should remember that the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Anyway, the third party argument does not apply in Sanders’ case.

But now that I’m on the subject, are we to throw up our hands and accept the two-party system as it is? Or should we think that it is wrong for honest progressives to work within the bounds of that system?

No. It means we must fight harder to achieve the goal of a truly just and free America. We must gain the courage to take a stand, whatever electoral strategy we use. For we surely know that the other candidates will never do it, sweet talk or no sweet talk.

Sen. Sanders is standing up for a people’s America. Without delving into personal invective, he’s calling out his opponents for what they really are: Jackbooted billionaires, duty-bound servants of Wall Street, and irresponsible free marketeers. The dangers they represent are destroying our country.

Anthony Newkirk is an assistant professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2016

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