I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, the peak of the Cold War, when Soviet-style Communist dictatorship (or “Godless Communism” if you really wanted to lay it on thick) was the great threat to freedom-loving God-fearing America.
So as I’ve watched Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president in recent months, I’ve had this recurring thought: It’s amazing that Sanders, a “democratic socialist” who unflinchingly refers to himself that way, is one of the two leading candidates to become the nominee of one on America’s two mainstream political parties.
I was reminded of this when I heard what Donald Trump said of Sanders the other day. At an appearance in Virginia Wednesday, reacting to the Democratic debate of the night before, Trump, a capitalist-slash-robber-baron, said of Sanders:
“I call him a socialist-slash-communist, OK? Because that’s what he is.”
There is no basis whatsoever to use the word “communist” to describe Bernie Sanders, but that sort of facty problem doesn’t seem to bother Trump much.
Yes, for those who care about the meaning of terms, communism was a form of socialism, although not a form of democratic socialism, since democratic socialism is committed to peaceful democratic means to advance its goal, means like advocating for them and running for election to try to implement them.
Yes, Sanders says he is calling for a “revolution,” and he says it constantly. In fact, ironically, it is his “electability argument” because he believes a non-violent revolution of attitudes will motivate millions of non-voters — who have given up on the system — to get involved, at least by voting.
In roughly 100 percent of instances when he advocates his revolution, he specifies that it is a “political revolution” he is trying to start, as in a radical but peaceful change accomplished through the ballot (which is not how Lenin took power in Russia in 1917).
But back in the 1950s in Cold War freaked out America, there was no time to make fine distinctions between different varieties of socialism (although, even then, anti-communist democratic socialist parties were in or near power in lots of countries with which the United States was allied).
So, as a child of those decades, I did not much expect to live to see the day when any U.S. politician could call himself a socialist (even with the “democratic” attached) and expect to have the kind of poll ratings Sanders currently enjoys.
True, hardly anyone among the seers who can tell the future of such things thinks that Sanders will become president or even the nominee of the Democratic Party. But he has already demonstrated that you can call yourself the s-word and not have to run from the stage. And that’s new.
Never a socialist movement
The United States, different from pretty much all the other established democracies, has never had a socialist movement of much influence. For example, although socialist presidential candidates appeared on the ballot in most elections during the first half of the 20th century, the all-time high-water mark was 1912 when Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs (who ran for president on the Socialist ticket five times early in the 20th century and was generally on the ballot in most states) got 6 percent of the popular vote. (On the other hand, Debs was thrown in jail for advocating his views.)
Of course, Sanders isn’t exactly running as a Socialist. He’s running for the nomination of the Democratic Party. He’s a “democratic socialist.”
Sanders chief rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, calls herself a “progressive.” There’s a problem with using that term if we want to understand the choice between Clinton and Sanders.
Clinton uses the term “progressive” as the relatively new word-of-choice for those who used to call themselves “liberals.”
The word “liberal” in American political usage (roughly the opposite of European usage) used to be the word-of-choice for those who were left of center but not radical. “Liberal” has gone out of fashion. In Tuesday’s debate, it was mentioned only twice, both times by Lincoln Chafee, and both times it was a reference to his former identity as a member of a now-extinct species called “liberal Republican.” But that’s a topic for another day.
Most practicing politicians, including many who once embraced the term “liberal,” now prefer “progressive” because righties did such a number on the L-word during the Reagan years and since.
(A famous ad run on behalf of Rudy Boschwitz in 1996 against Paul Wellstone called Wellstone “liberal, liberal, embarrassingly liberal.” Wellstone, by the way, won that race and wasn’t ashamed of the l-word. He wrote a book called “Conscience of a Liberal,” but in the last days before his tragic death he also asked the media to call him a “progressive.”)
But the trouble with “progressive,” at least at the moment and if we are trying to understand the difference between Clinton and Sanders, is that those like Sanders who are to the left of liberals also call themselves “progressives,” as in: Sanders at the debate and referring to a 2007 vote on an immigration bill: “I was not the only progressive to vote against that legislation.”
Liberal or radical
So, for purposes of exploring the differences between the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, we might go back to two out-of-fashion words and call Clinton a liberal and Sanders a radical. Clinton and Sanders almost perfectly typify the old liberal/radical dichotomy.
“Radical,” both in politics and math, refers to things that go to the root (in math it’s the square root, in politics it’s the root of the problem you’re trying to solve through public policy).
For Sanders, the root of the problem is the maldistribution of wealth and power in America.
“The top one-tenth of 1 percent” of Americans “own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he says in pretty much every speech and interview, a fact that fact-checkers have rated as “mostly true.”
“There is something profoundly wrong when 58 percent of all new income since the Wall Street crash has gone to the top 1 percent,” he says on his campaign website and pretty much every chance he gets.
In a properly functioning democracy, the majority of the electorate should be able to defend their interests through politics, but, as Sanders likes to say, the “millionaires and billionaires” are able, through the benefit of the Citizens United ruling and other means, to buy excessive influence over the political and governmental process through their domination of campaign finance. Sanders backs up his aversion to the world Citizens United made by refusing to affiliate with a SuperPAC.
To sum up his proposwed solution, the 90 percent should put him in charge, he suggests. He will raise the minimum wage nationwide to 15 bucks an hour (he always says “15 bucks”); raise taxes on the wealthy in several ways (inheritance tax, a new tax on Wall Street speculators, pop the cap on Social Security taxes) and use the proceeds to provide free tuition at public colleges and universities, expand Social Security benefits and more.
He also favors a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling.
Actually, so does Clinton, who pledges to take the need to overthrow Citizens United into account when she considers nominees to the Supreme Court. She also wants to raise the minimum wage (just not as high as Sanders) and has big, expensive ideas for helping kids afford college (just not as sweeping or expensive as Sanders’ free college at public schools idea). Although she has not held all these positions as long as Sanders has, and in many instances her position doesn’t go as far as his, she mostly favors heading down the same general path of taxing the rich to help the poor.
Clinton is a liberal, although she prefers the p-word. She generally agrees with the direction in which Sanders wants to take the country, but she wouldn’t go as far or as fast. She triangulates. She doesn’t want to scare Wall Street, she wants to co-opt it. But that leaves those with more radical views worried that she’s the one who will get co-opted.
She wants progressives to think of her as a “a progressive who likes to get things done,” as she said in the Tuesday night debate, a progressive who knows “how to find common ground, and how to stand [her] ground.”
That last formulation suggests that Clinton knows how to compromise, which used to be the way to get things done in Washington. Radicals don’t generally talk a lot about the need for compromise. Sanders doesn’t. In a post on The New York Times “Upshot” blog, political scientist Brendan Nyhan suggests that it is vital in today’s climate for candidates to talk about how they will make any progress toward their policies in the new era of no compromise.
Sanders, by the way, is crushing Clinton among younger Americans. An NBC poll taken after the debate, had him ahead by 54 percent to Clinton’s 26 percent among those age 18-30. Of course, young people don’t vote in the same proportion as older voters, and that’s one reason Sanders says he will lead the kind of “revolution” that will get more people to vote.
But is it possible that younger voters, who didn’t grow up in the Cold War, are also less likely to freak out when they hear a candidate call himself a democratic socialist?
Mid-Monday-morning update: While campaigning Sunday in Iowa, Sanders said that he planned to give a “major speech” on what he means by “democratic socialism,” acknowledging that he must continue to define the term because it makes some people “very, very nervous.”