11. Sanders and Socialism

Isn’t Sanders’s socialism a huge political liability, at the very least?

There’s been a lot of talk about Sanders’s socialism. I will paraphrase Richard Wolff, who suggests that Bernie’s democratic socialism does indeed fit into one conception of socialism, namely that government should have a role in equitably redistributing capital, even as he also suggests that Bernie could stand to be more progressive in his policies so that his gains aren’t lost under subsequent administrations (much as FDR’s socialist New Deal has been whittled away over the years). Yet Wolff praises Sanders for his honesty, for using a label the older guard might be afraid of using. In so doing, he opens up a conversation about the ills of capitalism — and also demonstrates how progressive the younger generation, which largely isn’t afraid to identify as socialism, is and can be. He mainstreams progressive politics so that the hand-wringing of some people today need not be an obstacle the next time around. 

People worried about Bernie’s electability would do well to understand that polls rise and fall (and that there are strategies — however uncertain, and I concede that they are — for winning). Privately, a majority have almost always, in this election cycle, supported Bernie’s ideas, while expressing publicly that he couldn’t be elected on them. But now that he is the first candidate in either party’s history to win the first three primary states in a competitive election, and now that he has won nearly half the vote in Nevada even despite facing opposition from a half dozen other candidates, people feel less afraid to consider that he may be electable. This is why it is important to vote for someone on principle — and to work hard for one’s candidate — rather than to hide behind the kind of political calculus of which Buttigieg is a master. 

Lately Buttigieg descended to attacking Sanders as someone who “cozies up to dictators.”  We’ve had a president who insists that “America” is “the greatest country in the world,” redolent of the same black-and-white thinking of an older brand of conservative, like George W. Bush with his “axis of evil.” How sad that some Democratic politicians are now rushing into the same retrenched corner: any “enemy of the American people” must be all bad, and it’s traitorous to suggest there is something fundamentally missing from the American political and economic experience. 

Of course there are practical considerations: you have to speak to the concerns of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles in order to win their vote in Florida. Yet Bernie is playing from a different playbook. He has a different approach to “winning elections,” and it consists of being honest and standing for something, rather than standing for nothing so as to pitch a “big tent.” Nevada suggested that this is part of his appeal among a broad cross-section of voters: not just Marxists, but people of all backgrounds. We’ll see how he does on Super Tuesday, but regardless, “practical considerations” are, more often than not, mere ideological paradigms without any real authority. (See, for instance, the falsehood that Sanders’s liberalism kept him from making any significant accomplishments in his three decades in Congress.)

What is most impressive about Sanders, I think, has nothing to do with the controversy over Castro and literacy (and I will cede the point that under Castro, with literacy came indoctrination into Marxist ideology; although it’s not as though we in the United States aren’t indoctrinated into our own idiotic national myths). What was historic was the way that Sanders called out, in a way that no major candidate ever has, the ugliness of the history of American military interventions in foreign affairs. This is a point on which even the closest candidate to Sanders, politically — Elizabeth Warren — can’t come close to him. Warren is a fine candidate, but one whose adoption of neoliberal talking points when it comes to foreign affairs is worrisome to me, and one whose embrace of capitalism is ultimately disqualifying when it comes to what it takes to tackle the climate crisis. 

This is a difficult time for political moderates. They have always fancied themselves the liberals in the room; now, they’re being taught by a younger generation that much of their mindset is conservative. They have the freedom to adapt and to embrace change if they want to; to the accusation that Sanders will be terrible for down-ballot politicians, an establishment Democrat can respond by throwing him under the bus, or an establishment Democrat can respond by rallying behind him, by mobilizing their supporters in a given region so as to contribute to the revolution. It may not be easy; it may not be as safe as the status quo. But when the status quo is going to cause the planet to fry, such profiles in courage are not optional but morally necessary. 

In an unexpected way, this brings us back to Naomi Klein. Just as Sanders’s support has grown and could very well grow more, she suggests that even climate culture can change for the better. People are beginning to care about the planet again. To harness this sense of survival together with a sense of passion about the whole broad array of social justice issues offers a vision of hope: just as when terrorist attacks or natural disasters spur spontaneous mass outpourings of human heroism, compassion, and solidarity, “the existential crisis that is climate change has the power to release these suppressed values on a global and sustained scale, to provide us with a chance for a mass jailbreak from the house that [capitalist] ideology built” (63).

Read on for more.