Bernie is no socialist: The Vermont senator is more Harry Truman than Karl Marx

Sanders has proven himself a formidable candidate in the Democratic primary. Only one thing is holding him back

Published March 15, 2016 8:00AM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Jim Young)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Jim Young)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

TheGlobalist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has proven himself to be a surprisingly formidable candidate in the Democratic primary for President of the United States.

Unlike his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he has also proven to be near pitch-perfect in terms of his political communications.

There is, it would seem, just one big thing that is anything but pitch-perfect and that has certainly contributed mightily to hold him back with regard to capturing the nomination: His proud self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”

Democrats who otherwise agree with his agenda, but who remain fearful that this label could cost the party the White House, have chosen to stick with Secretary Clinton.

It is not a label that Sanders could shake off easily, given that he has identified as a “socialist” for so many decades. That genie cannot go back into the bottle. In that sense, it is probably better to embrace it, explain it and hope for the best.

But it is odd that he has identified as a socialist for so long, given that he is far from being a Socialist.

Is Sanders actually a social democrat?

In the European – and particularly the postwar German – political tradition I come from, there would be no question that Sanders is, in fact, a “social democrat.” That is not a radical or controversial label in the least.

These days in fact, he would qualify on many (though not all) issues as a middle-of-the-road member of Angela Merkel’s CDU, the largest party in the German government (and supposedly right-of-center).

Germany aside, most of Europe’s major center-left parties have been social democratic – not socialist, democratic or otherwise – for nearly 70 years, if not well over 100.

Social democrats believed they could use government, selected by democratic elections, to achieve social improvements via reforms of (or expansions to) government aid programs and regulation of the marketplace and big business. Democracy, properly harnessed, and not a socialist state, would fix social ills.

Democratic socialists, by contrast, believed in pushing explicitly socialist goals via democratically-elected governments – goals such as widespread public ownership or nationalization of resources and a government explicitly of the working class.

They made a point of distinguishing themselves from Eastern Bloc “fellow travelers” or interwar radicals by emphasizing ballots over bullets as the means by which socialism would eventually be achieved.

There are, of course, blurred areas between democratic socialism and social democracy. Public provision of universal goods such as healthcare and education can be found in both, although the precise mechanisms for reaching them may be different.

Flashes of these elements can be seen in the Sanders platform, but they are still far from radical or truly socialist.

Lest we forget, Germany’s arch-conservative founder, Otto von Bismarck, introduced universal health insurance in Germany back in the 1880s. The United States only caught up a few years ago.

Senator Sanders also shares the convictions of class-based politics and the beliefs in the importance of popular political action outside of the legislative branch that characterized democratic socialist movements in postwar non-communist Europe.

Changing definitions

Today, as in the United States, the European labels have shifted ideologically somewhat. Social democrats there often occupy the centrist, market-oriented political space once firmly held by “liberal democrats,” who are an endangered species.

In the United States, these are the economic neoliberals of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. For the 2016 election, they have turned coat, claiming a right to share the label of “progressives” without much of the structural reform agenda to warrant that claim.

Similarly, European leftists have accused Social Democratic Parties of abandoning social democracy for market-oriented programs while keeping the label.

Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, Angela Merkel’s predecessor as Chancellor of Germany and an SPD man, certainly executed many structural reforms.

In Britain, there is a fierce intra-party struggle within Labour between its neoliberal social democrats – the Blairites – and its more leftist social democrats – including party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But Labour, even in Corbyn’s wing, is certainly a social democratic party today, rather than socialist and Marx-inspired, as it once was.

Was Truman a Socialist?

Likewise, it is difficult to see how Senator Sanders qualifies as a socialist while essentially running for president in 2016 on the platform outlined to Congress in September 1945 by President Harry Truman.

Truman’s program, laid out in the days after Japan’s surrender in World War II, is surprisingly relevant to 2016.

These positions and goals included unemployment reforms, labor standards, full employment, non-discrimination in hiring, improved labor relations, jobs for veterans, jobs for economically weak regions, housing for all, city planning, research investment, responsible taxation, support for small business, advancement opportunities and healthcare for veterans, investment in public works, conservation of national resources and much more.

Truman was the height of mid-century U.S. social democracy, but he was not a socialist.

Was Sanders a socialist long ago?

Senator Sanders was perhaps a democratic socialist when he began seeking offices in the early 1970s, initially fruitlessly.

Even in the 1980s, after he began to achieve some electoral success, Sanders certainly displayed far more empathy than most Democrats for the revolutionary socialist movements of the third world as they fought U.S.-backed right-wing paramilitaries.

At no point, however, has Bernie Sanders pushed the goals of socialism through his elected offices, whether as Mayor of Burlington, or Congressman, or as Senator.

Rather, Sanders made himself known for identifying space for – and securing – policy compromises and amendments where the democratic process could be harnessed to adopt policies benefiting all of society, including the working class and small business.

That, in essence, is America’s version of social democracy, and it was once far more mainstream in U.S. politics than it is today.

Playing catch-up

Sanders is proposing a “political revolution” to catch the United States up to its social democratic peers a half-century ago. The United States being behind the curve does not make Sanders a socialist.

Moreover, his effort to make sure that the concerns of the lower-income half of the electorate be considered and addressed with more than lofty rhetoric and not forgotten after the elections are over does not represent an act of socialism.

It just makes him a lower-case-d “democrat” – with some social improvement interests.

By Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine, and a columnist in newspapers around the world. He is also the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, which is aired on public radio stations all across the United States. In addition, Mr. Richter is a keynote speaker at international conferences -- and the author of the 1992 book, “Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect.” Follow him on Twitter @theglobalist.

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Bernie Sanders Harry Truman Karl Marx Socialism The Globalist Vermont