What Does Bernie Sanders Mean by Socialism?

Perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of Bernie Sanders’ campaign has been his willingness to use the word socialism, one of America’s long-standing taboos. Of course, associating himself with socialism was always going to be a tricky move for Bernie in the U.S. political framework, even though the Vermonter has long portrayed himself as favoring only the mildest form of it. Because of the Cold War, many Americans, especially of the older generation, have been culture-trained  to associate socialism with communism and tyranny. Owing to that acculturation, less than a majority of today’s voters (47%) say they would even contemplate voting for a socialist candidate. So it took a certain amount of moxie for him to even broach the subject.

So what does Sanders mean by socialism and how does he present his view to the public? Most notably, his concept of the term differs from Marxian socialism in its holding to a reformist approach. He basically proposes to reform the present system rather than overturn it. Thus economically, his conception does not translate into a classic state-dominated planned economy controlling the nation’s major industries. “I don’t believe that government should take over the grocery store down the street, or control the means of production,” he states in a Georgetown speech. While he believes that the economy should be carefully regulated, he supports “private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America.” He directs his wrath mainly toward those that “leave America to exploit low-wage labor overseas.”

In terms of social policy, Sanders is committed to helping those who need help, namely, the broad majority of American working families and the poor. He would guarantee a strong safety net, universal health care, a decent minimum wage, free college tuition, Wall Street reform, and paid family leave. Taxes would be considerably higher than at present, but made more progressive to ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share. Politically, he has called for a “political revolution,” sparked by popular awareness and support. It would be fueled, presumably, by a renewed trust in government based on its commitment to people’s needs. To be effective, it would require changes in how politics operate, including the lessened role of money and the moneyed classes, easier access to the polls, greater transparency, and similar reforms. Democratic socialism of the sort Sanders espouses is unthinkable without a strong emphasis on its “democratic” political aspect.

The above description, of course, makes it fairly obvious that Bernie’s “socialism” is not really socialism, but a blend of capitalism and socialism, an attempt to take the best of both systems. It harnesses the innovative aspects of capitalism, while sensibly regulating it and assuring that the general populace will benefit through a generous social policy. “Social democracy” is one word for it, the “Nordic Model” another.

Nordic countries like Denmark have practiced versions of such a system for almost a century. With a strong union movement acting as a counterbalance to industry, such countries have been able to reach a compact satisfactory to both workers and entrepreneurs. While taxes are relatively high, benefits are generous. People cannot get as rich as in the U.S, but everyone has a stake in the system and nobody is left by the wayside. The people’s satisfaction with this system is suggested by their greater involvement in public life: voter participation is 89% in Denmark compared with only 65% in the United States. The Danes are more politically active apparently because they trust their government to serve their common interests.

The United States admittedly is a different country than Denmark. Its area and population are much more heterogeneous, and its history shows a stronger element of individualism and localism. Still, commitment to communal values is far from absent in our history, as any reading of De Tocqueville demonstrates. A key justification for establishing the Constitution, after all, was “to promote the general welfare,” a prominent phrase in the Constitution’s 52 word Preamble. Government was meant to play a constructive role in the life of the nation rather than withering away, as some on the right have suggested.

In this spirit, Bernie has given his socialism an American twist. He speaks of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights (from his State of the Union Address of January 1944), which outlines rights that go beyond strictly political rights. Political rights are fine, but not adequate in themselves to assure real freedom for most Americans under a competitive form of capitalism. The speech stresses the rights to medical care, education, employment, and basic economic necessities.  Anyone can be the victim of an economic downturn, a disabling illness, a natural disaster, or a homeless childhood. Bernie argues that societies that provide no government insurance against such calamities, while greasing the skids and lowering taxes for the well-to-do, can hardly be viewed as beacons of freedom.

Getting people to talk about socialism, or social democracy, or a Nordic “golden mean” is just a first step, of course. After that, the task is to undo years of anti-government rhetoric foisted on us by the Republican Party. If we can remove the visceral antagonism to government so prevalent today and show people through many steps that it is worthy of their trust, we will be truly able to move in the direction that Bernie points to.


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