‘Liberal’? No. ‘Progressive’? Nah. How About ‘Democratic Socialist’?

Roundup
tags: election 2016, Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialism



Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

Senator Bernie Sanders formally identifies himself as a “democratic socialist,” a designation which is at once part of his allure, especially for a new generation of voters, and a turn-off for other sections of the electorate—not to mention a likely unbridgeable barrier for media and political elites. He mixes in references to European and/or Canadian models of health care, family leave and college financing, but when pressed for a definition of the term, Sanders customarily reverts to Democratic Party platforms of the New Deal and after.  

Citing the programs of venerable Democratic Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Sanders benignly explains, “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.” Yet, if socialism is already so much a part of “the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class,” as Sanders argued at a speech in Georgetown University last November, why, one might ask, venture out on a new and uncertain conceptual limb? Why not just stick to “Democrat,” “liberal” or at most “progressive,” the latter being the current favorite—often favored even by Sanders—of the left-but-respectable crowd? The answer tells us a great deal not only about the current crisis in the American economy and politics, but also about the changing position of America in the world. 

On the positive side, by resurrecting a term that emerged from a 19th-century critique of class inequality, Sanders’ socialism actually dovetails nicely with his more extended emphasis on the relative decline of wealth and income working-class and middle-class Americans have experienced since the 1970s and the corresponding appropriation of power and influence by a favored few. Add to that the organic connections historically (as evident in France, Germany and Britain by 1900) between the socialist movement and the first electoral breakthroughs for ordinary working people, and the connection only reinforces the bona fides of an attack on a corrupt, undemocratic political system.  

By some measures, socialism may appear a more solid denominator than the more prolific and customary “liberal” or “progressive” mantras. Ping-ponging between its classic-liberal (i.e. free-market) roots, its subsequent New Deal liberal statism and its most recent “neoliberal” global embodiment, the former has lost all orientation on economic matters and tends to weigh in only on the scales of racial and sexual identity. 

“Progressive” is more encompassing, but so much so as to overwhelm the political consumer with a smorgasbord of off-setting issues. Is Bernie more progressive because of his proposals on single-payer health, international trade and the minimum wage? Or is Hillary more progressive because she is tougher on guns and a more determined defender of women’s rights? ...




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