The Inner Bern

The other morning in my neighborhood I saw one of those classic Causemobiles – a beat-up old Nissan whose back end was plastered with political bumper-stickers. Down with NSA Spying! Fight Hunger. End Global Warming. Plant Seeds and Sing Songs. Coexist! Namaste. This particular Causemobile clearly steered left rather than right.

Two other stickers, affixed next to one another, caught my attention: Bernie Sanders 2016; and Capitalism – We Can Do Better! The juxtaposition points to a crux in the Democratic Party and its presidential hopes. An article in the Times last week noted the inroads Sanders has made in Hillary’s position, reporting that the suddenly-nervous Clinton campaign is ready to play the socialism card, “highlighting his socialist beliefs to warn that he would be an electoral disaster who would frighten swing voters and send Democrats in tight congressional and governor’s races to defeat.” That tactic relies on the ever-useful electability issue, specifically the mainstream Democrat worry that no self-proclaimed socialist could ever pass muster with enough Americans to win. “The Republicans,” said Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Hillary supporter, “can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle.” In a similar vein Jonathan Chait, writing online for New York Magazine, warns that Bernie’s “self-identification as a socialist poses an enormous obstacle, as Americans respond to ‘socialism’ with overwhelming negativity,” and concludes “it seems bizarre for Democrats to risk losing the presidency by embracing a politically radical doctrine that stands zero chance of enactment even if they win.”

What doctrine does Sanders in fact embrace – and what does he mean by it? After several months of paying attention to the primary campaigns, I’m still unsure.  While sometimes Bernie simply calls himself “a socialist,” more often he calls himself a “democratic socialist.” Is this the same as a “social democrat”? It’s an important distinction, and one Sanders himself tends to blur. Last fall Josh Barro wrote a piece in The Upshot whose word-salad title -- “Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist” -- sums up the confusion. Sanders, Barro argues, “is not really a socialist. Or at least, if he is a socialist, he is also, at the same time, a capitalist.” Like Hillary, Bernie advocates a mixed economy, albeit with more taxes and regulation – which makes him, in Barro’s view, “a regular Democrat, only more so.”

Journalists continue to shed more heat than light on this issue. A front-page article in the Times today, “Democratic Race Will Test Where The Left Stands,” casts the Hillary-Bernie contest as “an epochal battle over their vastly different visions for the Democratic Party,” tying Bernie’s role as radical tribune to “his critique of Democratic support for free-market capitalism,” his embrace of the “Scandinavian-style welfare state,” his habitual “raging against income inequality,” and his dreams of “upending” the U.S. economic system.

Such breathlessness notwithstanding, is there any evidence that Sanders is in fact anything more radical than “a regular Democrat, only more so”? Not on any policy point, as far as I can tell. It’s more a matter of tone and emphasis, an eagerness to speak bluntly about class, wealth and power where other Democrats routinely soft-pedal or sugarcoat. As Matt Boudway points out, “the other candidates... are fatalistic about the role of corporate money in politics, which is why, unlike Sanders, they are willing to accept huge amounts of it. That, they would argue, is just the way the game is played, and always will be. Sanders dares to hope it might one day be otherwise, and refuses to pretend it makes no difference one way or the other.”

How does Bernie himself describe his political vision? In a major speech last November at Georgetown, he asserted that his brand of democratic socialism “builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.” He explained that “democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” noting that “many other countries … have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor."

That’s Finland, not the Finland Station; there’s nothing there about state control of factories, banks, companies, offices, or anything like that. As an article in the New Republic last spring, titled “Stop Calling Bernie Sanders a Socialist,” pointed out, “Sanders doesn’t want the government to run the entire economy, but he does want the government to ensure that the economy doesn't regularly ruin millions of people's lives.” And as a Politifact article last summer noted, policy priorities such as strong labor rights, progressive taxation, and robust public support of child care, health care and higher education have little to do with Marxist socialism, and a lot to do with classic Democratic politics of the post-WWII era. The article observed, shrewdly, that Bernie champions the term “socialist” for “aspirational” purposes – to reclaim a long discredited term, and because “it tidily sums up his priorities and helps distinguish him from other Democrats.”

In other words, Bernie is a social democrat in policy and a socialist in rhetoric; “socialism” is less his actual governing philosophy than his brand. I find it really interesting that, after several decades in which left-of-center politicians have avoided the term “liberal” like poison, even (or especially) when their policies clearly were liberal, here is a candidate who’s actually claiming to be more lefty than his policies suggest he actually is. Is this just an avuncular anomaly of Old Uncle Bern, or does it say something about the changed temper of the times?

I do think that a lot of people – myself included -- would be curious to know what Sanders’ deep-down take on capitalism is. What does the Inner Bern, in his heart of hearts, make of the private enterprise system? If he gave an entirely candid answer to that question, would it be closer to: a) “Capitalism is the necessary engine of a thriving economy and the only real way to power a complex society economically – but left uncontrolled, it creates adverse outcomes, so the challenge is to harness its power more progressively than we have done.”  Or would it be more like:  b) “Capitalism is an inherently exploitative system that I regard with mistrust; personally I’d like to see more state control of enterprise wherever possible, and I’d hope to move in that direction, within the confines of what America will accept.”

Can we do better than capitalism? What does Bernie really think? What do you think? And  what’s in a name, anyway? Only the elections will tell – starting one week from today, in Iowa.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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