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

The democratic socialist tradition that Sanders is invoking may be just what we need.

Leon Fink February 9, 2016

Bernie Sanders speaks in Franklin, NH in summer 2015. (Marc Nozell / Flickr)

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. 

Where can one look for a remedy? The democratic socialist tradition might indeed be a place to start.

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 smörgås­bord 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?

Dat­ing to its own pre-World War I ori­gins, pro­gres­sivism has always been heav­i­ly sin­gle-issue ori­ent­ed and hence open to inter­nal­ly-con­flict­ing ten­den­cies. Like lib­er­al­ism, then, pro­gres­sivism (except per­haps for being anti-monop­oly” as in Ted­dy Roosevelt’s trust-bust­ing) has no inher­ent eco­nom­ic agen­da at a moment of acute nation­al eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty. What­ev­er else it may mean, social­ism re-cen­ters dis­cus­sion on the dis­tri­b­u­tion and redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth.

Final­ly in its favor, social­ism as it evolved in the so-called social democ­ra­cies of post-World War II Europe proved at once a dri­ver of uni­ver­sal ben­e­fits — includ­ing health care, day care, pub­lic tran­sit and free tuition — but also quite com­pat­i­ble with inno­v­a­tive, com­pet­i­tive, free-enter­prise economies. Unhooked in prac­tice and increas­ing­ly in the pub­lic mind from the top-down, man­aged-economies of the Com­mu­nist bloc — and indeed large­ly foreswear­ing even pub­lic own­er­ship of indus­try since the 1960s — actu­al­ly exist­ing” social­ism today looks rad­i­cal” only in rela­tion to the drip-drip down­siz­ing and de-reg­u­la­tion of busi­ness and bank­ing that set in with glob­al­iza­tion in the 1990s. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many Democ­rats, lib­er­als and pro­gres­sives large­ly bought into this neolib­er­al glob­al order. The era of big gov­ern­ment is over,” declared Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in 1996. Twen­ty years lat­er, how­ev­er, faith in the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket­place, free trade deals and tax cuts no longer inspire con­fi­dence, espe­cial­ly from Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty voters.

Where can one look for a rem­e­dy? The demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist tra­di­tion might indeed be a place to start. 

As Sanders indi­cates, the U.S. has bare­ly begun to use the redis­trib­u­tive pow­er of the tax sys­tem to address mount­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ties as well as gap­ing holes in the Amer­i­can infra­struc­ture of health, edu­ca­tion, trans­porta­tion and sci­en­tif­ic research. That said, social­ism” as a tar­get­ed injec­tion of pub­lic invest­ments in select areas of our nation­al life could at best offer short-term relief from the cur­rent eco­nom­ic malaise and sense of decline. Our larg­er prob­lems, unfor­tu­nate­ly, are now knit into a world order which shows slight capac­i­ty for self-gov­er­nance at the polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic lev­el (wit­ness the cur­rent world­wide refugee prob­lem). Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist” poli­cies in oth­er advanced economies have not escaped the pres­sures of aus­ter­i­ty and job loss. 

Only in the U.S., indeed, does social­ism still func­tion as either a scare word or a ral­ly­ing cry. At some point, it would seem, a new plat­form of inter­na­tion­al inter­de­pen­dence on both envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic grounds must be built. Alas, for that pol­i­tics, we yet have no name. 

Leon Fink is the author of The Long Gild­ed Age: Amer­i­can Cap­i­tal­ism and the Lessons of a New World Order (2015) and edi­tor of the jour­nal Labor: Stud­ies in Work­ing-Class His­to­ry.
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