How Bernie Sanders Should Talk About Democratic Socialism

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tags: election 2016, socialism, Bernie Sanders



Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board and the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad."

Dear Senator Sanders,

Congratulations on the tremendous success of your campaign. You have energized and inspired millions of Americans and forced the questions of economic inequality and excessive corporate power to the center of our political discourse. These are remarkable accomplishments.

So take the following advice as coming from an admirer. I urge you to reconsider how you respond to the inevitable questions about what you mean by democratic socialism and peaceful revolution. The next time, embrace our own American radical tradition. There’s nothing wrong with Denmark; we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa). But most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia. More importantly, your response inadvertently reinforces the idea that socialism is a foreign import. Instead, talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values.

You could begin with Tom Paine and other American revolutionaries who strove not simply for independence from Britain but to free the new nation from the social and economic inequalities of Europe. Embrace the tradition of abolitionists, black and white, men and women like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Abby Kelley, who, against overwhelming odds, broke through the conspiracy of silence of the two major parties on the issue of slavery and helped to create a public sentiment that led to Lincoln’s election and emancipation. (And don’t forget to mention that slaves represented by far the largest concentration of wealth in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, that slaveholders were the richest Americans of their time, and that nothing could be accomplished without confronting their economic and political power.) Refer to the long struggle for women’s rights, which demanded not only the vote but also equality for women in all realms of life and in doing so challenged some of the most powerful entrenched interests in the country.

You should mention the People’s Party, or Populists, and their Omaha platform of 1892, which describes a nation not unlike our own, with inequality rife and a political system in need of change, where “corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench…. [and] the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” Or what about the Progressive platform of 1912, for a party that nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president, which called, among other things, for strict limits on campaign contributions, universal health insurance, vigorous federal oversight of giant corporations and other measures that, over a century later, have yet to be realized. ...




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