The U.S. Republicans have long chastised Democrats for being “socialists.” It started before Ronald Reagan identified “socialism” as something to be stopped in his successful presidential campaign of 1980. Indeed it dates back to the 1930s, the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal.
Socialist name-calling reached a crescendo when Barack Obama emerged as a public figure. By this time it was clear that Republicans (and Wall Street Democrats) were keen to undermine government commitments to even social spending by a party led by a rising star who had yet to define himself.
Crying wolf for so long may help explain why polls show that self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders does not scare regular Americans.
As American blogger Matthew Yglesias explains, Sanders is a smart politician with a record of getting things done in Congress.
In order to bring Americans together — which is what successful campaigns do — Sanders wants to raise the minimum wage, tax billionaires and corporations (instead of giving them handouts), end trade policies that boost profits as workers lose their jobs, enact medicare for all and reduce outrageous pharmaceutical prices.
These economic policies are all very popular: which is why Republicans and Democrats alike have had to spend so much money, for so long, to convince people they were not possible, against abundant evidence to the contrary.
Sanders identified his core political philosophy in a 2015 speech at Georgetown University. For Sanders, “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”
Though he does not highlight it in his campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee, Sanders supports worker control over production through new forms of social ownership, not a state-ownership model of socialism.
Sanders’ version of socialism is steeped in democracy, which is probably why he calls himself a democratic socialist, rather than a social democrat.
He emphasizes the need to “reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”
Corporate campaign donors buying votes of soon-to-be office holders is the most obvious betrayal of American democracy. Sanders points to the 1990s with “Wall Street spending $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to get deregulated” and then, after that edifice collapsed in 2008, receiving “trillions in government aid to bail them out.”
Sanders’ political education as an activist took place as the civil rights movement was gaining strength, and the struggle to end the Vietnam War was beginning.
Martin Luther King Jr. was famous for leading battles against racial segregation. Usually overlooked by mainstream America was King’s opposition to the Vietnam invasion, and his espousal of a Christian gospel inspired socialism.
Sanders often quotes King: “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
Michael Harrington was a self-described democratic socialist, and author of the 1962 exposé of poverty The Other America, which became mainstream once president John Kennedy began referring to it in his speeches. In 1982 Harrington founded Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a group well to the left of the Democratic party and intended to transform centrist Democratic party thinking.
In 2014, DSA initiated a successful call for a Sanders candidacy in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and have campaigned non-stop for him ever since.
Sanders situates his politics in the FDR era. FDR built a coalition to combat fascism abroad and extinguish right-wing extremism in the U.S. His presidential social agenda was obscured after his death in 1945, as the U.S. pursued its cold war against communists abroad and so-called “reds under the bed” at home.
In 2019, when Sanders took the stage again at Georgetown University, the Democratic presidential hopeful referred to the 1944 state of the union address by FDR, in which FDR called for a second bill of rights guaranteeing economic rights.
Sanders calls for a 21st-century economic bill of rights that protects rights to: a decent job that pays a living wage, quality health care, a complete education, affordable housing, a clean environment and a secure retirement.
Sanders’ creed is straightforward: “What Roosevelt was stating in 1944, what Martin Luther King Jr. stated in similar terms 20 years later and what I believe today, is that true freedom does not occur without economic security.”
The affordability crisis that is “breaking America” makes Sanders’ version of democratic socialism meaningful to millions.
Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.
Image: Joshua Mellin/Flickr