I don’t expect Bernie Sanders to become the Democrats’ nominee, but what he will accomplish is to popularize socialism in the United States. Some are asking if it hasn’t already arrived on our shores. As Bill Maher said on his HBO program, “most Americans don’t realize we’re already socialist,” and in his New York Times column, Timothy Egan argues that the United States system is actually a blend of capitalism and socialism — what the late historian Martin J. Sklar called “the mix.” As Egan writes, “libraries and fire departments are socialist institutions,” as is the Interstate Highway System “created by Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
What Sanders favors is something else — a government that through high taxes on the wealthy and even the middle-class would finance all the huge government entitlements he favors. Sanders has announced that he is going to give a speech defining what he means by socialism, but in the meantime he explained socialism in this way to one woman at an Iowa meeting:
[Americans] may not know that there are countries all over the world, whether its Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the UK, who on and off have had Democratic Socialist governments and they may not be familiar with some of the very positive policies those governments have developed for the middle class and working families…To me, democratic socialism means democracy, it means creating a government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest. When you go to your public library or you call your police or fire department … these are socialist institutions.
Actually, the problem with our country today, as Ronald W. Dworkin explains in an important essay in The American Interest, is that we have what the Tea Party calls a system of “crony capitalism,” and what the left calls “corporate welfare.” Our system might have elements of socialism within capitalism, but now, big government and big business have become so merged that we have more of a statist system than a truly free-market and democratic one. Dworkin argues that in some ways this is analogous to features of feudalism, in that regulations (read guilds) make it harder to gain entry into many fields, entrepreneurship and productivity decline and wages stagnate. The groups that benefit are the government and big industry and those attached to them. “The underlying spirit of democracy,” Dworkin writes, “is thus smothered one citizen at a time.” On the other hand, he says, throwing out capitalism and instituting full socialism means “risking the destruction of both democracy and wealth.”
That is why the siren call of socialism as an American goal is so dangerous, especially since half the population according to polls say they would vote for a socialist running for the highest office in our land, and about 47 percent of Americans believe socialism would be good for our country.
Decades ago, the late socialist leader Michael Harrington used to say that there was a “socialist caucus in Congress,” referring to the few rather obvious House members who were far to the left. Now, the entire Democratic Party has moved in that direction, which is why Sanders gives the broadest definition of socialism he can come up. This makes the line blurred between Democrats and self-proclaimed socialists. Since the 1920s, socialist candidates have run for president on their own Socialist Party ticket. Now, Sanders, who is no less a socialist than Norman Thomas was in the Socialist Party’s heyday, is running in the Democratic Party and caucuses with them in the Senate. No wonder Debbie Wasserman Schultz had such a hard time telling Chris Matthews what the difference between them is.
Sanders argues that his model for socialism is not the old totalitarian Stalinist system, but the Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The fallacy of a Scandinavian model has been demolished by Jeff Jacoby, Mona Charen and Kevin Williamson. All three authors show just how it has failed, as their welfare state policies have proved to be unsustainable; their ruling political parties have been forced to reform or eliminate many of the programs similar to those favored by Sanders. They have, in fact, found it necessary to use market forces to help their economies and, like Clinton, Sweden even introduced welfare reform in the ’90s. As Josef Joffe wrote some years ago, “the modern welfare state creates a new vested interest with each new entitlement” and also invites corruption, since “the more the state distributes and regulates, the more it tempts its citizens to outflank the market and manipulate public power for private gain.” Or as Dmitri Mehlhorn puts it in a more pithy use of words, “Bernie’s Socialist Dreamland is BS.”
A sentimental socialist like Paul Berman, who writes that socialism “is an ethical movement that is also a wonkish movement,” and who continues to argue that the U.S. can gain inspiration from these social-democracies and then “enact social and economic programs designed to bring about large and democratic transformations,” is deluding himself.
With the poor education that students are receiving on campuses, especially from New Left professors in the field of American history, it is no wonder that young college students and graduates completely believe in Bernie’s message. Those who teach them argue that it is a failure of our leaders’ imagination that socialism was not created after FDR and his followers called for a New New Deal. It sounds so good—free education, free health care, free housing — all to be obtained just from taxing the rich and the corporations.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, Americans were prepared for Sanders’ message by Barack Obama, who moved his party leftward. However, the base of the Democratic Party believes that Obama was not able to deliver on his many promises. Now Bernie is stepping in to save the day.