In characteristically well-reasoned and pointed argument, Eric Foner recently chided presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for invoking European examples in making the case for “democratic socialism.”
“Next time,” Foner suggested in The Nation’s November 16 issue, “forget about Denmark and talk about Paine, Douglass, FDR, and Debs as forebears of a movement that can make the United States a fairer, more equal, more just society.” In this case, however, I beg to differ with one of my favorite historians.
Although there is certainly nothing wrong with citing the considerable contributions of the American radical tradition, no contemporary candidacy should be limited to the policy menu comprised by the domestic market. On the contrary, a constricted political climate in the United States has for too long kept options off the shelves—regarding family leave, daycare, healthcare, and free higher education (all advanced now by Sanders), as well as worker consultation-in-industry, nationalized banking, and confiscatory taxation—that have long been practiced in Europe, Canada, or Japan. What better way to make them “practical” here than to point to their successful implementation somewhere else?
Moreover, the embrace-our-own tradition model carries understandable but not altogether laudable pedigree: How long should the left defer to the charge of un-Americanism? Undoubtedly, the McCarthyism of the early 1950s cast a shadow of illegitimacy and conspiracy on any radical political project that was assigned a foreign origin, let alone sustained international inspiration. But there was something more. As intellectual historian David S. Brown emphasizes, the immigrant children who first advanced the new “history from below” in the 1960s were sensitive to their own distance from the American political heartland, and hence eager to bridge the gap. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, in particular, with deep roots in the nation’s progressive past, helped a new generation of students, including many “red-diaper babies” from New York Jewish families, to redefine the central themes of American history around the democratic yearnings of ordinary working people. Raised in Queens in a radical Yiddish-speaking household, Herbert Gutman, for example, began his pursuit of the American working-class experience at Columbia University (where he completed an MA under Richard Hofstadter in 1950), but did not catch fire until he transferred to Madison for his PhD. “The Madison years,” as he would later recall, “made me understand that all my left politics had not prepared me to understand America west (or even east) of the Hudson River. Not in the slightest.”