Learning from Bernie Sanders

A vision is a story about our common future that touches our hearts as well as our minds. To be effective, the story must, in simple words, portray a future that people would want to inhabit and identify some practicable steps for getting there. The left globally has not been effective lately in presenting such an attractive story-line. But there is an exception: Bernie Sanders, who emerged from obscurity as an independent Senator from Vermont to nearly capture the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

What can we learn from the campaign of this self-identified democratic socialist?

What is Democratic Socialism, and Does It Matter?

Not much, according to some. Many left-wing intellectuals have criticized Sanders on the grounds that he is not a socialist but a social democrat. From a strict definitional viewpoint, the criticism is valid. Sander’s program calls for reforms of capitalism rather than its transformation.

But definitional purity, though intellectually satisfying, leads to inept politics. What is the realistic alternative for a democratic socialist in contemporary United States? Abstract definitions of socialism – socialization of the means of production, for instance – will not stir anyone to action outside academia. Even more to the point, any concerted attempt to overturn capitalism would lead to a violent, protracted and unpredictable conflict. Far better to adopt Bernie’s incremental approach.

Socialism is a process, not a predetermined destination. And if, in the end, America ends up only looking more like Sweden, even that is a major victory.

In fact, the old distinction between democratic socialism and social democracy seems less and less tenable. We on the left generally acknowledge the unity of means and ends, meaning that a deeply democratic society must be won by competing for majority support within liberal-democratic institutions. If so, we are all in the game of seeking incremental changes in a progressive direction. The important thing is to know where you are heading. A democratic-socialist approach must aim at radical reformism.

Bernie’s Story

And this is what Bernie Sanders’ program mainly does. Moreover, the reforms are more than a technocratic response; they fit neatly within a story-line that resonates with the legions of well-educated young people who form his base. Let’s briefly reconstruct the elements of this story.

His premise is that the United States is not the land of equal opportunity it claims to be. It is instead a land of vast income, wealth and power inequalities. This is unjust and must be rectified. To reconstruct equal freedom requires, according to the Sanders’ campaign, the following changes:

  • a genuinely progressive tax system that means, among other things, raising taxes on the wealthy and on capital gains;
  • raising the minimum wage to $15/hour;
  • a major infrastructure program to create jobs and build the basis for a productive economy;
  • free public university and college education, together with a program to reduce the staggering debts of former students;
  • a single-payer, universal health-care system based on the principle that health care is a right, not a commodity;
  • thorough-going reform of Wall Street, the heartland of plutocracy, by breaking up the large banks, reinstating heavy regulation and imposing a financial transaction tax to pay for free post-secondary education;
  • revision or termination of free-trade agreements to prevent foreign investors from suing the government over laws designed in the common interest and to retain high-paying jobs in the US.

Of course, this program of reforms could not succeed in the absence of what Sanders calls a “political revolution.” If normal politics continues, the vested interests detrimentally affected by these changes would use the power of money to block the enabling legislation. So Bernie also proposes a raft of political reforms to limit corporate and interest-group spending on campaigns and lobbying. To build countervailing power, he also advocates legislation to strengthen trade unions. Finally, and most dramatically, Sanders proposes that government encourage the growth of worker-owned cooperatives. This initiative would lay the groundwork for eventually expanding economic democracy.

The Lesson is Simple, Yet Crucial

Leaving aside Sander’s other concern to stem global warming, we can draw certain conclusions about an effective democratic-socialist approach in the context of liberal democracy.

  • Keep the story simple and galvanizing. Bernie identifies an unjust system affecting the lives of most Americans, and then proposes a set of remedies, backed by the uncompromising recognition that rectifying the situation requires a political revolution.
  • Avoid the error of responding to the misleading slogans of the right with a set of complex policies designed by policy wonks. These policies will not be implemented unless you touch the hearts of people and give hope. Thus, focus on the latter.
  • Propose a reasonable list of reforms, including less controversial ones (an infrastructure program, progressive tax system) along with radical ones (breaking up banks, promoting worker cooperatives). Above all, provide a sense of possibility that these changes can be made.
  • Think long term. Again, it is the process of change that is important, not worrying so much about the end state. We need an ecologically sustainable society animated by equal freedom, but there is no blueprint.

There is a lot at stake for the left in getting the politics right. It is the far right that is globally ascendant. A collection of xenophobic, populist parties has become adept at exploiting the insecurities and anger of swathes of populations. They simplify their story by identifying victims (we the people, the cultural majority) and scapegoats (alien immigrants, scheming bankers, globalists, Muslims, Jews). The solution is then obvious: vanquish the scapegoats/elites, build walls against global influences, glorify the nation. Sadly, people who are buffeted by forces they do not understand may respond favourably.

We surely have a more uplifting and unifying story to tell, but we are not making the case. Let’s not forget the main lesson of Bernie’s success.

It’s the story, stupid.

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