(Phil Roeder)

What Is Actually Radical About Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialism Isn’t the Socialism

It isn’t a particularly radical political vision—it’s an unflinching commitment to democracy.

BY Theo Anderson

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It may be that a political revolution of the kind that Sanders predicts is an impossible dream. On the other hand, perhaps only a grand vision of “the world that should be” is equal to the scale of the challenges we face.

“What you are asking for is a cultural revolution,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders to an overflow audience of students at the University of Chicago on September 28, his voice booming off the massive stone walls of the school’s Rockefeller Chapel. He was answering a student’s question about how to translate the relatively intimate, small-scale politics of Vermont to the national level.

“I think what you’re talking about,” Sanders said, “is creating a nation— it’s pretty radical stuff—in which we actually care about each other rather than looking at the world as, ‘I’m in it for myself. And to hell with everybody else.’”

The brouhaha over Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist” has largely missed what is truly radical about that identity. It’s not the socialism. Sanders has never used the “S” word with precision—for him, it seems to be simply a shorthand for robust investment in public services and the common good.

That shorthand has proved remarkably useful, allowing him to distinguish himself from liberals and most Democrats, while pointing out that much of what he calls socialism is already deeply embedded in American society in a variety of popular programs and institutions, most notably in public libraries and parks, in the Social Security and Medicare programs, and in various aspects of the military. The ambitious agenda he has laid out would amount to “the largest peacetime expansion of government in modern American history,” as the Wall Street Journal has noted. At the first Democratic debate, the former senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, used one of his few speaking opportunities to toss a pail of cold water on Sanders’ proposals. “I don’t think the revolution’s going to come,” he said blandly, “and I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.” 

Webb was correct about the odds of Congress passing much of Sanders’s agenda for public spending. But he was wrong to conflate that agenda with the revolution Sanders has in mind. What makes Sanders a radical, and what constitutes the essence of his revolution, isn’t his commitment to certain spending priorities or a particular economic plan—it’s his fierce commitment to democracy.

“Change never takes place from the top down,” he told his audience at the University of Chicago. “It always takes place from the bottom up. It takes place when people by the millions, sometimes over decades and sometimes over centuries, determine that the status quo—the world that they see in front of them—is not the world that should be, and they come together. And sometimes they get arrested. … And sometimes they die in the struggle. And what human history is about is passing that torch from generation to generation to generation.”

Though they are very different in their approaches to achieving it, Sanders shares this commitment to a radical version of democracy with Saul Alinsky, the activist and organizer who made Chicago his home and has played an outsized role in our recent national politics. Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals, the summary of his organizing philosophy that was published a year before his death in 1972, is particularly notorious among right-wing pundits, and he was often invoked by conservatives in the 2008 and 2012 elections as evidence of Barack Obama’s secret radicalism. Obama was, famously, a community organizer in the 1980s for a Chicago-based organization, the Developing Communities Project, inspired by Alinsky’s strategies. Hillary Clinton’s ties are even more direct. She was born in Chicago and grew up in a suburb, and she wrote her thesis at Wellesley about Alinsky. In a letter she sent him in 1971, Clinton wrote that “the more I’ve seen of places like Yale Law School and the people who haunt them, the more convinced I am that we have the serious business and joy of much work ahead.” His ghost will no doubt be conjured once again if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination.

As with Sanders, though, Alinsky’s radicalism wasn’t a matter of the specific reforms he pushed for, which were about winning incremental and often relatively modest improvements in the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. Rather, he was a radical and a revolutionary because he actually believed in democracy.

There are many dimensions to democracy, of course. But for both Sanders and Alinsky, it is essentially about the distribution of power in society. As Alinsky explained in Rules, “My aim here is to suggest how to organize for power: how to get it and to use it.” When Sanders talks about how to end economic inequality, he’s proposing the same project.

To believe in democracy is to believe that a broadly engaged electorate, in which power is relatively equally distributed, fosters a society that works better. “If you don’t believe in people,” Alinsky once told Chicago radio personality and author Studs Terkel in an interview, “then what you have to believe in, of necessity, is a dictatorship, an elitist society, an aristocracy.”

Few political leaders of any party would say that they doubt the wisdom of “the people.” But the actual test of that commitment is how well our systems—educational, economic, political—prepare and empower them to contribute to “a common faith,” as the philosopher and theorist John Dewey called his vision of the democratic project. “The foundation of democracy,” Dewey wrote, “is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience. It is not belief that these things are complete but that if given a show they will grow and be able to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action.”

For those with power, the dilemma is that sharing it with the people can provoke unpleasant questions about what constitutes the common good. One convenient solution is to use power to change the subject. Alinsky was a radical because he—like Sanders—never allowed anyone to change the subject.

He focused relentlessly on the question of power—how it is gained and distributed—and he made concrete demands at the micro level, working for reform brick by brick and block by block. He kept his distance from electoral politics in the belief that formal political ties and ideological commitments would only hinder his pragmatic approach to organizing. But he grudgingly allowed that there was no choice but to work within the political system. “We will start with the system because there is no other place to start from except political lunacy,” he wrote in Rules for Radicals. “It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation.”

That this strategy bore fruit is undeniable. Alinsky achieved much for neighborhoods in Chicago that had very little, leaving a legacy that has inspired generations of organizers. But it’s also evident, more than four decades later, that he fell far short of achieving either the reformation or the revolution that he sought.

The divide between those with and without power is starkly, shockingly visible on the South Side of Chicago, where Sanders gave his September speech. The University of Chicago’s expansive lawns and gothic architecture are set among some of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in the city and the nation. On the day that Sanders delivered his speech, 14 people were shot in the city in a 15-hour period. Six of them died, including a mother and grandmother as they stood outside, preparing to get in a car and visit relatives.

Alinsky likely would not be surprised that the revolution he sought has not been realized. He was allergic to, and impatient with, the kind of dramatic pronouncements that define Sanders’s style. All the talk of peace and love and cooperation among young people in the 1960s, Alinsky told Terkel, had a mystical quality that was disconnected from realities on the ground. “You’re not asking for a revolution,” he said. “You’re asking for a revelation.”

For all his clear-eyed realism, though, Alinsky, who was a secular Jew, did acknowledge the critical importance of a certain element of faith and hope in the quest for social justice, and his parting words in Rules sum up much of what the Sanders campaign is all about: “We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it.”

It may be that neither Alinsky’s ground-level strategy nor Sanders’ effort to build a broad, national coalition can reverse our march toward increasing inequality and the concentration of power among elites. It may be that a political revolution of the kind that Sanders predicts is an impossible dream.

On the other hand, perhaps only a grand vision of “the world that should be” is equal to the scale of the challenges we face. Perhaps “millions of people at every level,” as Sanders offered at the conclusion of his University of Chicago talk, can indeed come together to foster a healthy democracy, redistribute power and make the American political system work for all people.

That may require a leap of faith. So, too, may a radical commitment to democracy. And given the makeup of Congress and the apparent apathy of much of the electorate, there is ample reason for doubt. But “if you believe in a free and open society,” as Alinsky once put it, “what are the alternatives?” 

Theo Anderson, an In These Times writing fellow, has contributed to the magazine since 2010. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7 and contact him at [email protected]

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