Bernie Sanders is the 1 percent's worst nightmare: How he promises to upend America's oligarchy

2016's socialist candidate wants to use the tax code to transfer wealth downward. Are you terrified yet?

Published May 27, 2015 4:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Locher)
(AP/John Locher)

Most news articles about Bernie Sanders in the mainstream media include the phrase "avowed socialist" or "avowed democratic socialist." The phrase has become hackneyed to the point that one struggles to remember when "avowed" was used to describe anything other than Bernie Sanders' left-wing politics. If nothing else, Sanders' campaign for president, which he (re)announced in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday, will forever link the word "avowed" with the words "democratic) socialist Bernie Sanders" in the minds of political junkies, much like fans of "The Simpsons" can no longer hear the words "dental plan" without immediately thinking "Lisa needs braces!"

The use of "avowed" connotes a taboo. That Sanders would avow his belief in socialism, or democratic socialism, or anything containing the term "socialism," is a sly way for reporters to imply that he has zero chance of appealing to red-blooded Americans. It is equal to, if not worse than, being an avowed worshipper of Satan or the New York Yankees.

Labels are fun. But what things does Bernie Sanders believe? Are they things that some other Americans might believe? And where do they fit within the confines of the Democratic Party, of which Sanders is not a member but will be competing for its presidential nomination?

Ahead of his campaign launch, Sanders gave an interview with the underground left-wing pamphlet CNBC, outlining one of the basic premises of his campaign: that he'll advocate for the very things that mainstream Democrats for decades have been insisting they don't believe, like so-called redistribution of wealth.

SANDERS: What is my dream? My dream is, do we live in a country where 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent of the people vote? Where we have serious discourse on media rather than political gossip, by the way? Where we're debating trade policy, we're debating foreign policy, we're debating economic policy, where the American people actually know what's going on in Congress? Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent. Top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much as wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Does anybody think that that is the kind of economy this country should have? Do we think it's moral? So to my mind, if you have seen a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, you know what, we've got to transfer that back if we're going to have a vibrant middle class. And you do that in a lot of ways. Certainly one way is tax policy.

Sanders' language is important here. You'll note that he does not actually use the term "redistribution" of wealth. That's because the term "redistribution" implies that the status quo, in which wealth is stacked at the top, is the natural order of things. The status quo is simply one of various possible distributions of wealth as determined by the current set of laws governing the country. Prior to Reagan, there was a different set of policies that led to a different distribution of wealth -- strong labor rights, higher, more prohibitive marginal tax rates on the very wealthy, and so forth. As Sanders says, it's not about "redistributing" wealth -- it's about recalibrating the distribution to one that was better. His challenge in appealing to voters will be decades of free-market agitprop that's conditioned lower- and middle-income people to believe that policy directly challenging the super-wealthy's right to be super-wealthy would mark the end of human civilization, and the death of God.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent puts it nicely in his loose breakdown of economic differences within the Democratic Party:

As I’ve noted before, at risk of oversimplifying, there are two poles that define the economic debate among Democrats. There’s the agenda that tends to focus more on boosting wages and economic mobility and opportunity: Family-friendly workplace policies designed to remove barriers to work, such as paid sick leave and universal child care; more investments in education, job training and infrastructure; a minimum wage hike; and so on. These policies are embraced by most mainstream Democrats.

Then there’s the agenda embraced by Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, economist Joseph Stiglitz, and others. This agenda is more focused on diagnosing inequality as the result of an economy and political system that is broadly rigged (as they like to put it) in favor of the very top. The main culprits are, among other things, insufficient financial rules and oversight; lopsided influence over the political process enjoyed by the wealthy and corporations; and a tax code that is not only not progressive enough, but is unfairly gamed to protect certain types of wealth.

Another way of making the distinction: between those who are more oriented toward increasing equality of opportunity, and those who are motivated toward increasing equality of outcome. Liberals deviated from "equality of outcome" because they did not want to be perceived as Communists. And so the Democratic Party for the past few decades has been about indirectly helping the lower and middle classes by improving education and job training and all those other things that Sargent mentions.

What Sanders recognizes -- and what many more lefties have come to recognize since the financial crisis -- is that equality of opportunity doesn't work if you first don't move toward greater equality of outcome. No, this doesn't mean total equality of outcome. There still will be tiers -- everyone can breathe! But the idea would be to make sure that the people at the bottom first aren't starving to death. Our culture is filled with a few inspirational stories of people who came from absolutely nothing but managed to break the cycle of poverty and make something of themselves. That's wonderful. What the vapid culture doesn't tell you, though, is that they are rare exceptions in an economy that mostly keeps people born into the top at the top, and people born at the bottom in the bottom. And that bottom is getting bigger while the top gets smaller.

Bernie Sanders wants to narrow the gap with direct downward transfers of wealth in order to make life less shitty for most people. Why, he's even avowed these positions. Scary stuff.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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