Socialism is not a
"frighteningly alien worldview," it's merely another set of ideas for
organizing society to protect and uplift every human being. Here is what
you need to know about socialism as Bernie Sanders puts it.
Once upon a time, socialists running for president in the United
States had to explain that while they had no chance of actually winning
an election, their campaigns were aimed at “educating” voters — about
As a successful politician twice elected to the U.S. Senate and
showing very respectable numbers in most presidential primary polls,
however, Bernie Sanders needs no such excuse. He assures voters that he
is running to win and there is no reason to doubt him. But win or lose,
his campaign nevertheless is proving highly educational for Americans
perplexed by the meaning of “socialism.” Or as Sanders sometimes
specifies, “democratic socialism,” or the even milder “social
Since the advent of the Cold War, and even before then, the
multifarious meanings of the S-word were hidden behind the ideological
and cultural defenses erected against communism. The Soviet dictatorship
and its satellites claimed their authoritarian way was the only true
socialism — and conservatives in the West seized that self-serving claim
to crush arguments for social justice and progressive governance.
American politicians of both parties embraced the blurring of socialism
with communism, rejecting both.
But that narrow definition of socialism was always wrong. To accept
it meant to ignore fundamental realities, both contemporary and
historical — such as the bolstering of the Western alliance by European
democracies that called themselves socialist or social democratic, all
of which had adopted programs, such as universal health care, denounced
by American politicians as steps on the road to Communist serfdom.
Decades later, of course, those same countries — including all of
Scandinavia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom — remain democratic,
free and open to business.
As for the United States, Sanders might recall that this country once
had a thriving Socialist Party, which elected mayors in cities like
Milwaukee and even sent two of its leaders, Milwaukee’s Victor Berger
and New York’s Meyer London, to Congress.
Their movement enjoyed not only electoral victories but also a strong
record of municipal reform and reconstruction. They built sewers to
clean up industry’s legacy of pollution; they built public housing; they
ensured delivery of publicly owned, affordable water and power; and
they cleaned up local government.
But between the triumph of the New Deal and the devastation of
McCarthyism, the political space for American socialism virtually
vanished. Before they were relegated to the margins, however, the
socialists strongly influenced the direction of American social policy.
Long after the various socialist parties had faded, their heirs
continued to serve as the nation’s most insistent advocates for reform
and justice. Socialists (and yes, communists), were among the leading
figures in the civil rights, labor, and women’s movements. It was a
remarkable 1962 book by the late, great democratic socialist Michael
Harrington, “The Other America,” that inspired President Kennedy and his
brothers to draw attention to the continuing shame of poverty in the
world’s richest nation. When Ronald Reagan warned in 1965 that Medicare
was a hallmark of “socialism,” he wasn’t far from the mark — except that
50 years later, that popular program has liberated older Americans, not
Now Bernie Sanders has taken up the old banner in a political
atmosphere where more voters — and especially younger voters — are
receptive to calm debate instead of hysterical redbaiting.
Certainly Hillary Clinton, whatever her view of Sanders’ ideology,
understands social democracy: When her husband was president, the
democratically elected socialist leaders of Western Europe were his
closest international allies. In her first book, “It Takes A Village,”
she highlighted many of the same social benefits in France, Germany and
the Scandinavian countries that Sanders discusses today.
So Clinton knows very well that “socialism,” as her primary rival
uses that term, is no frighteningly alien worldview, but merely another
set of ideas for organizing society to protect and uplift every human
It is long past time for the rest of the American electorate to learn that, too.
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