Much of Bernie Sanders’ appeal to his base is his embrace of the label of socialism. And I really appreciate him bringing it back into the American mainstream. Whether it is politically expedient for a man who is nothing more than a New Deal liberal to call himself a socialist is another question. But redbaiting him is stupid and when Democrats do it, it is even more stupid. And as Jesse Jackson writes, the important word in “democratic socialism” is “democratic.”
Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” Warren objects to that label and says she’s for making markets work. But this is a difference in labels, not in substance. Their agendas are remarkably similar. The direction they would set is the same.
Some already have started to frighten people about the label “democratic socialist.” Trump paints it as Venezuela or Cuba. Mike Bloomberg has called Sanders (and presumably Warren’s) views on taxing wealth “communist.” Voters are going to hear a lot more of this nonsense, if Sanders continues to build momentum or Warren catches fire.
Here’s the reality. The important word in “democratic socialism” isn’t socialism, it’s democratic. Sanders isn’t talking about making America into Cuba or Venezuela; he’s talking about extending social guarantees like those offered in most other advanced industrial states, invoking Denmark or Sweden. These countries have universal health care at lower cost, paid family leave, guaranteed paid vacations, higher minimum wages, more generous public retirement programs. They also have vibrant and competitive economies, lower inequality, less poverty, and higher life expectancies.
Sanders is seeking a popular mandate from voters to move in this direction.
When you think of democratic socialism, remember the programs that Republicans and conservatives and the corporate lobbies denounced as socialistic when they were first considered: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental and consumer protection, banking regulation to protect consumers.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which manages our nation’s civil aviation and international waters, is a state program. The Food and Drug Administration, which ensures that drugs are safe is a state program. The minimum wage, food stamps, public housing could all be considered democratic socialist programs.
Our problem has been that we have too much socialism for the rich and the powerful — subsidies for corporations, get out of jail free cards for crooked bankers, tax breaks for the rich that leaves them paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries, monopoly power for corporations that allows them to gouge customers and more.
And we have too little shared security — democratic socialism — for working people: affordable health care, a living wage, guaranteed paid vacation and family leave, universal childcare, affordable college, public mobilization to deal with the threat of climate change.
When I ran for the presidency, I didn’t use the label, although some tried to slur me as a socialist or a communist, but I don’t think the label makes any difference. The question is one of direction, not name-calling; of program, not posturing.
And on this, Dr. Martin Luther King — often smeared as a “red” or a communist — was very clear. In 1966, he confided to his staff:
“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of the slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
If you think Bernie’s socialism is bad, you might as just red-bait King while you are at it.
Plus Bernie is right about Cuba. It’s not some monstrous regime. It did some good things and it did some bad things. Those good things are worth noting. And having just spent 10 days there, I believe this even more strongly. It’s not 1966 anymore. Except that it totally is in the minds of the right-wing exiles from Cuba and in the minds of old white Americans. Let the red-baiting begin!