Recently, there have been some folks pointing out that Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem to be a socialist. I’ve heard this claim from both my friends who would like it if he was a socialist and from those who would not like it if he was a socialist. This is a topic of some interest to me, and to many others, both on the right and the left. People I tend to think of as socialists seem to often regard Sanders as a European-style social democrat.
I’ve written about socialism before, and my understanding of its various forms and the distinctions between socialism and other economic models is pretty nuanced. I’m neither on the left or the right, and my political philosophy is way out on another world entirely, so while I have no particular attachment to socialism, I can appreciate it well given my critical distance from it and my healthy respect for those who genuinely seek to achieve justice by way of socialism.
And Bernie seems to genuinely seek to achieve justice. I don’t for a second doubt his sincerity or the degree to which he truly values his core principles. He has had a long and successful political career, and arguably has made things better for many people in various communities. So when he says that he is a democratic socialist, I believe that he means it. And when he says that he wants to make the U.S. more like certain Scandinavian countries, I believe it.
But as both well-informed socialists and their right-libertarian opponents point out, those policies of the Scandinavian countries he so admires and seeks to emulate are not actually socialist policies. Both socialists and their opponents are quite agreed that those Scandinavian countries have capitalist and/or neoliberal policies supporting their more robust welfare systems. Knowing socialists as I do, I find it really hard to believe that no socialist has ever confronted him about the fact that the policies he advocates are not socialist policies and explained to him what democratic socialism is in its various forms. So it’s difficult to understand why he keeps using the label, unless he just has no respect for the meaning of words or the socialists who ought to be his allies, and that seems unlikely.
So why might Bernie Sanders be calling himself a democratic socialist despite the fact that he’s explicitly based his policies on the policies of countries that are capitalist and/or neoliberal? One is that he might be attempting to move the American political spectrum incrementally closer to being able to adopt socialism, viewing himself as a temporary bridge between our current crony capitalism and, after a few generations, socialism is some form. So even if we look at his policies and determine that his policy proposals are not actually socialist policies, he might simply be advocating those because he doesn’t believe that more radical measures to implement socialism more quickly would work.
So how can we attempt to answer the question of whether Bernie Sanders is a socialist without being able to scan his brain and watch the contents of his consciousness? As with many things in life, we are stuck with looking at the limited available evidence and drawing the conclusions that make the most sense in light of what evidence we do have. So I decided to take a second, more detailed look at his campaign website’s breakdown of his policy proposals to see if I can find any socialist policies in them.
In this set of policies, found just below the usual populist rhetorical flourishes that both Trump and Sanders have so brilliantly employed in this election cycle, we find several proposals to increase taxes on the wealthy, create jobs via Keynesian policies and raise minimum wages, break up the cronyist banks, and ramp up support for public education and healthcare. But strangely, nothing about the collective ownership of the banks or even mandated employee ownership of companies.
In this much shorter set of policies, Sanders proposes fully subsidized public higher education and a tax on “Wall Street speculation” to pay for it. I think there’s actually a good case to be made for fully subsidized higher education, but there’s nothing particularly socialist about it. The countries he listed as following this policy are not even a bunch of socialist countries. If there were socialist countries who did this, then why not include them as evidence for his democratic socialism?
As someone who is generally unhappy with the current role of monetary exchanges in American politics, I sympathize with Sanders’ desire to reform campaign finance law. And it’s completely understandable to want to appoint a Supreme Court Justice to help overturn a case he thinks damaged the integrity of the democratic process. Still no socialism here, though.
There’s some pretty good evidence, I think, for government investment in infrastructure development helping to ameliorate tough economic times by creating jobs, providing job training and work experience, and increasing incomes. But these are Keynesian policies, not socialist policies. The means of production would still be privately owned, not democratically controlled.
While I think it’s admirable to advocate for an increase in wages, I don’t think $15 an hour is very much. And a one-time increase doesn’t generally help workers much. For a minimum wage to be reasonably effective, it would need regular increases to match the increase in the cost of living. This is neither a socialist policy nor a very good policy at all.
I’m convinced that anthropogenic global climate change is real and that governments have a role in preventing and ameliorating the negative impacts humans we have on our environment. Bernie Sanders’ policies are to tax big business more to incentivize them to pollute less and more Keynesian policies (not socialist policies) which use public funds to build infrastructure and promote private investment in clean energy.
I really like some of his proposed immigration policies, but none of them are socialist policies.
I really like many of Sanders’ plans for police reform, for prison reform, and for criminal justice reform. I would also be thrilled to see the War on Drugs ended and the decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level he proposes. Lots of good and interesting things here, but it’s Day 8 of Sanders Campaign Website Survivor, and still no sign of socialism.
There are many other issues: Women’s Rights, LGBT Equality, Caring for Our Veterans, Healthcare, Disability Rights, Social Security Expansion, Prescription Drug Prices, Rural Economic Improvement, Reforming Wall Street, Parental and Sick Leave, War and International Security, Diplomacy with Iran, Tax Reform, and Funding for All of It.
It’s now Day 22, and democratic socialism is still nowhere to be found among Sanders’ policy proposals. After reading through all that, I wish Sanders had put some socialist policies somewhere near the top of the list so that I didn’t have to do so much research to come to a conclusion. He could have this process a whole lot easier for me. I’m still not sure whether Sanders is a socialist or not, but I’m 99.9% sure that his policies aren’t socialist policies.
We could accurately call them Keynesian policies, American Progressive policies, or European Social Democratic policies, or even nationalist populism. But I think it’s disrespectful to serious socialists to call Bernie Sanders a socialist, and I don’t feel compelled to respect his self-identification as a socialist when his policies are pretty clearly not socialist policies.
Of course, socialists in the U.S. might well vote for Sanders because he will at least try to move us toward something closer to socialism than the crony capitalism we have now, and that’s perfectly understandable. And those who favor American Progressivism, Keynesian economics, and European Social Democracy may want to do the same thing for slightly different reasons. That too, is perfectly understandable.
So, my dear friends and fellow citizens, please do vote for Bernie Sanders if your well-informed conscience leads you to do so. Let’s just not operate with any illusions that a Sanders Presidency will be a genuine political revolution that will implement democratic socialism in 8 years even if he gets his way on everything despite a cantankerous Republican House and Senate.