Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism is less significant than it seems. Liam Glen writes on how politicians and commentators care more about labels than policy.
What does socialism mean? Ever since the term came into the political mainstream, Americans have endlessly debated that question. I can give you the objective, undeniable answer right now: absolutely nothing.
Socialism is a nine-letter word that has different connotations to everyone. The people, movements, and nations that adopt the term vary wildly in their political and economic ideologies. It is better for us to ignore these simple labels and focus on the actual ideas behind them.
But that requires too much effort. During the Cold War, Americans associated the word socialism with poverty, corruption, and dictatorship. Only unrepentant radicals without a care for how the world thinks of them used it as a self-identifier.
That still might be the case had one of those unrepentant radicals not somehow managed to become a leading presidential candidate. Bernie Sanders no longer wants to nationalize major industries, but he still calls himself a socialist. And now that meaningless nine-letter word is upending the US political debate.
Red Scare 3.0
When Sanders announced that he would give a speech about democratic socialism, his rivals were quick to pounce.
Another Democratic candidate, John Hickenlooper, declared, “I fundamentally disagree that we should do away with the democratic, regulated capitalism that has guided this country for over two hundred years.”
Joe Biden was reported as saying, “Things have changed in a way that needs to be turned around. And it doesn’t require socialism and it doesn’t require some fundamental shift. It requires sort of reordering capitalism to make capitalism work and save it.”
Both of these quotes sound nice and reasonable. But that is only because they attack a strawman version of Sanders’s socialism. He never once advocated the overthrow of capitalism. Instead, his focus was on expanding New Deal liberalism as to guarantee basic material rights to every American.
The end result of this would be, surely enough, a democratic, regulated, reordered capitalism.
The fluid definition of socialism gives Sanders’s Democratic opponents a prime opening to misrepresent him. And for Republicans, it may as well Christmas come early.
Everyone is familiar with the rhetoric by now. In the rally to launch his reelection campaign, President Trump declared, “A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.”
One would be hard-pressed to find meaningful similarities between Democratic policies and anything carried out by Maduro, Castro, or Stalin, but that no longer matters once one has the common thread of “socialism” to tie them together. Saying that a 2-3 percent tax on the superwealthy’s assets is the first step to gulags now passes for a serious argument.
In a Fox New op-ed, National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer admitted quite plainly that his goal is to “make the 2020 election a choice between socialism and freedom” rather than one about actual, constructive policy debate.
Worthwhile policy ideas certainly exist on the right, but politicians realized long ago that it is much easier to win elections through strawmanning and fearmongering.
However, it is not just partisan opportunism that is at fault. In a recent article, Janusz Bagjski, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, manages to fall into the same elementary traps.
At the beginning, he acknowledges that America’s self-proclaimed socialists do not wish to socialize the means of production, the goal of most self-proclaimed socialists throughout history. Yet, he dismisses this and spends the rest of the article seeking to refute Bernie Sanders by giving some fairly basic arguments against socializing the means of production.
The fundamental flaw with this type of analysis is that it treats words like socialism as if they are tangible things. It assumes that every person and movement that calls itself by that name must therefore hold some commonality – in this case, government ownership of industry.
But reality is never so neat. Just as words like liberalism have different meanings across the Atlantic, so might socialism.
If we want a fair, meaningful discussion on politics, it is essential that we consider what others are saying and not simply make assumptions based on what labels they use to describe themselves.
It Takes Two to Tango
Of course, if Bernie Sanders did not want to be misrepresented like this, he could have just not called himself a socialist.
Maybe it was a defensive move. He has identified as a socialist for decades. Any attempt to disown the label will surely backfire, so he might as well try to market it in a way that is more publicly acceptable.
This also seemed to be his message to the party as a whole. In his speech, he pointed to how Democratic policies throughout history have been derided as socialist by their opponents.
Republican strategists have made it clear that they plan to use red scare rhetoric just as much if the Democrats nominate a moderate like Joe Biden as if they nominate the preserved corpse of Vladimir Lenin. The party might as well own the label.
It also helps Sanders stick out from the rest of the Democratic field. The primary is set to be a contest of who is the most progressive. By brandishing his socialism – a label that no other candidate is willing to adopt – Sanders may well be the winner.
Whether socialist brand will help or harm its wielders is another matter entirely. Terrified Democrats and gleeful Republicans believe that it will sink the party. Public opinion of the term is not very high. Despite this, however, Bernie Sanders was the country’s most popular politician in 2017, so voters’ behavior might not be as predictable as beltway pundits like to believe.
Style Versus Substance
Both the socialists and non-socialists in the Democratic Party want to build a narrative that there is an insurmountable philosophical difference between them. For the most part, however, they have the same basic vision of regulated capitalism.
This is especially true if one compares Sanders with the more left-leaning non-socialists, like Elizabeth Warren. The difference between their agendas is negligible.
All of this is made more confusing by the fact that there is a small but growing number of activists who really do seek the destruction of private industry. However, they count very few elected officials among their ranks.
For now, the divide among Democrats is not between grand visions for societal organization, but on smaller issues like education and healthcare. They might not be so attention-grabbing, but the accumulation of these small issues matters far more than any meaningless label.