Let’s be clear: Bernie Sanders’s heresy, what sets him apart from every Democrat running to unseat Donald Trump, is not simply that he calls himself a socialist in a country long proudly identified as capitalist. Those two labels, socialist and capitalist, are open to too many interpretations and represent too many historical examples (everything from Norway to the United States, Stalin’s Soviet Union to Hitler’s Nazi Germany) to pin down. Rather, a more precise way to define the historic nature of Sanders’s campaign would be to focus on his promotion of social or economic rights and how they relate to the individual or political rights found in the US Constitution.
Sanders, by waging practically a one-person crusade to legitimize social rights, is striking at the core cultural belief that holds the modern conservative movement together: an individual-rights absolutism that has, today, little to do with economics or political philosophy but rather forms the essential, cultish element of right-wing identity politics.
First, some definitions: Individual or political rights are aimed at restraining government power. They presume that virtue is rooted in the individual and that the public good, or general welfare, of a society stems from allowing individuals to pursue their interests—to possess, to assemble, to believe, to speak, and so on—to the greatest degree possible. A legitimate state is a state that restrains itself, that limits its role to protecting the realm in which individuals pursue their rights. Economic or social rights presume that in a complex, industrial society, with its imbalances of power and often extreme concentrations of wealth, the state has a much more active role to play in nurturing virtue through the redistribution of wealth in the form of education, health, child care, pensions, housing, and other common needs.
Sanders made the distinction between these two sets of rights the centerpiece of his historic June 12 speech at George Washington University, in which he defended democratic socialism as the country’s only possible redemption, not just from Trump but also from the rotten system that produced Trumpism. Calling for a 21st-century bill of economic rights, one modeled on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 proposal for a Second Bill of Rights, Sanders said, “We are proud that our Constitution guarantees freedom,” but now “we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman, and child in our country basic economic rights—the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.”
Most countries of the world—including those Scandinavian countries that Sanders often mentions—understand individual and social rights not to be in conflict but rather to be mutually sustaining. They find no functional discord between, say, running a national health service and guaranteeing due process or between providing public education and allowing freedom of speech. “Democracy, political as well as social and economic,” wrote Hernán Santa Cruz, the Chilean UN delegate who in the 1940s helped Eleanor Roosevelt draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “comprises, in my mind, an inseparable whole.” Individual rights need social rights because, as FDR liked to say, succinctly, “necessitous men are not free.”
In contrast, many in the United States pit these two kinds of rights against each other, understanding them to be fundamentally antagonistic. Conservatives take it as bedrock truth that the pursuit of social rights will destroy individual rights. There are many different elements to what is called American exceptionalism, but for many on the right, an individual-rights exclusivism, defined in opposition to social rights, is that ideology’s foundation.
For instance, FDR wasn’t the only president last century to propose a second bill of rights. Ronald Reagan did, too, in July 1987, intending to ensure that FDR’s social rights version would never come into being. Complaining that the original Constitution didn’t protect the right to private property as explicitly as it did political freedom, Reagan proposed 10 amendments—including a balanced budget amendment—that would put “economic freedom under the protection of the law.” The adoption of social rights would be “foolish,” the Heritage Foundation wrote a few years later, since “abundant health care, housing, and food are byproducts of wealth created by private individuals pursuing a profit”—not by a redistributive state confiscating the fruits of individually produced wealth.
The legal theorist Cass Sunstein, in his 2004 book The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution, identifies two moments when the United States might have adopted social rights: in the 1930s, under FDR’s New Deal, and in the 1960s, under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. Yet neither period, Sunstein writes, saw any “serious debate about constitutional amendments. There was no significant discussion of adding social and economic rights to the American Constitution.”
This statement is true, but Sunstein misses the ideological intensity with which those committed to individual rights despise the very concept of social rights—and have waged a ceaseless war to keep them at bay. That war, as wars often do, has become total, producing a siege mentality—a cultural identity—that shapes the way the right views the world and helps explain the intractability of race and racism in the nation’s political discourse.
In fact, one could write the history of the United States centered on this war, going at least as far back as Andrew Jackson, running through the Civil War and the New Deal to Reagan and onward to today.
Let’s start with a story about Jackson, one that is fairly well known among historians but rarely read for its revelation of the racism at the center of American individualism. In 1811, Jackson, then a Nashville lawyer and slave trader, still years before he would become president, was transporting a group of enslaved people along the Natchez Trace—an ancient Indian road that ran alongside the Mississippi—when he was stopped by a federal agent. The trail passed through Chickasaw and Choctaw lands, nominally protected by federal treaty, and government agents were charged with inspecting the passports and papers of travelers, both to check for escaped slaves and to enforce the growing number of federal laws attempting to regulate slavery.
Asked by the agent for his papers, Jackson flew into a rage, revealing an all too familiar truculence, passed down the years from one white man to another. “Yes, sir, I always carry mine with me,” he answered, pulling out the US Constitution (another version of the story has him pulling out his pistols), which he said was “sufficient passport to take me where ever my business leads me.” Jackson was waved through, after which he launched an obsessive letter campaign to remove the offending agent from his position, even threatening him with vigilante justice.
This incident crisply illustrates Jackson’s commitment to individual rights—to travel, to trade, to enslave without hindrance—and how those rights, in US history, were defined by racial domination. “My God, is it come to this?” he asked in another petition. “Are we freemen or are we slaves? Is this real or is it a dream?” (Emphases in the original transcription.) Jackson here was hallucinating despotism, taking the mere request by the federal government for documents proving his ownership of slaves to be akin to slavery itself.
In 1828 he was elected the seventh president of the United States, leading a movement that defended slavery with an increasingly extreme commitment to the ideal of minimal government, as historian Manisha Sinha shows in The Counterrevolution of Slavery. The federal government, Jackson said at the height of Indian removal, as chattel slavery was expanding at a rapid pace, should be run with “primitive simplicity and purity” and “limited to a general superintending power,” prohibited from passing laws restricting “human liberty” and used only to “enforce human rights”—rights that he understood to include the one to own other human beings as property.
It was during the age of Jackson that individual rights absolutism seeped deep into white political culture. Land stolen during Indian removal and the labor stolen under chattel slavery (and, as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins argued, under patriarchy) created not just unparalleled wealth but also an unparalleled distribution of wealth among the general populace. Never before in history could so many white men consider themselves so free.
As early as 1748, Montesquieu, the French philosopher who influenced James Madison and other founders of the United States, gave a sense of what a republic organized around something other than defense of property rights might owe its citizens: “a certain subsistence, a proper nourishment, convenient clothing, and a kind of life not incompatible with health.”
“A kind of life not incompatible with health” is a nice phrase, but it’s an ideal that would have required a government far more interventionist than the one in place in the antebellum United States. The Civil War was almost a turning point.
In other countries, the kind of brutality the United States experienced in the fight to abolish chattel slavery led to rapid advances in the idea of social rights, especially those related to health care, pensions, refugee care, and burials. A direct confrontation with the physicality of war—with having to dispose of severed limbs and rotting corpses, settle and feed uprooted refugees, tend to dysenteric fevers, care for widows and orphans, and calm shell-shocked veterans—expanded social consciousness. As Harvard’s Adam Gaffney, the president of Physicians for a National Health Program, notes, the barbarism of 19th-century war and revolution transformed the first premise of liberalism—that people have a right to life—into a new and socialized right to health and health care.
Not in the United States. The signature program of Reconstruction, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was the closest this country came in the 1800s to such a transformation in consciousness. Just before his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln signed the bill establishing the bureau as a branch of the War Department. With thousands of agents across the South and hundreds of offices, the agency distributed basic necessities, including food, medicine, and clothing. It also founded thousands of schools, colleges, and hospitals, resettled refugees (white and black), administered confiscated properties, passed and enforced ad hoc laws, regulated labor relations and minimum wages, and levied taxes. It was, in potential and practice, the antithesis to Jacksonianism, an instrument of potentially awesome power, the “most extraordinary and far-reaching institution of social uplift that America has ever attempted,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 20th century.
But the triumphant backlash to the bureau and to Reconstruction more broadly empowered a new, postbellum generation of race hustlers. Chief among them was Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, who updated all the old Jacksonian tropes to intensify demonization of the federal bureaucracy, associating all social problems—corruption, dependency, poverty, unemployment, and crime—with black skin. He sharpened the Jacksonian opposition of free men fighting federal “enslavement,” describing the Freedmen’s Bureau as an “agency to keep the negro in idleness” and create a culture of dependency through the “lavish issuance of rations.”
The phrase “social rights” hadn’t yet come into its current usage, but the contours of the racially charged opposition to it—in which “individual rights” would represent whiteness and “social rights” blackness—was coming into view. As portrayed by Johnson and others, the Freedmen’s Bureau, along with other civil rights efforts, was unnatural in its interventionism and its effort to use political power to impinge on economic activity and to extend political equality into the social realm, or in the words of Missouri Republican Representative James Blair, “to force the negroes into social equality.”
For the next half century, the United States soared across the continent and out into the world. Then it came crashing down. During the Great Depression, New Dealers started to hitch the adjective “social” to any word it would stick to: Progressive educators started a journal called The Social Frontier. “Non-social individualism,” one sociologist wrote, is “detrimental to our further progress; non-social should therefore give place to social individualism.” Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary, who would go on to serve as his vice president, said in 1934, “New frontiers beckon with meaningful adventure…. We must invent, build, and put to work new social machinery.” And of course there was a social surplus to be distributed by the social republic as a social wage, through programs like Social Security. “We are each and all of us, whether we like it or not, parts of a social civilization,” FDR told a Little Rock, Arkansas, audience. “To subdue the social wilderness,” Wallace said, one needs “not a new continent but a new state of heart.”
Sunstein might be right that there was no serious effort to amend the Constitution to include social rights. But many New Dealers didn’t think an amendment or textual revision was needed. The words “life” and “property,” to them, implied social relations, which meant, they argued, that the Constitution as written could serve as the basis of a social democracy. “We need now,” wrote Wallace in 1934, “to re-define property rights in a way that will fairly meet the realities of today.” In 1912, Walter Weyl, who would soon become the editor of The New Republic, said that the “soul of our new democracy is not the unalienable rights, negatively and individualistically interpreted, but those same rights, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ extended and given a social interpretation.”
As World War II drew to a close, this social interpretation of US law and society seemed to be underway. Victory over fascism had to be about more than restoring an ideal of freedom as freedom from restraint. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt said in his 1944 proposal for a bill of social rights. But, similar to the reaction that took place after the Civil War, the social republic was not to be.
During Sanders’s first run for the presidency, against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, public commentary often opposed race and class as two distinct categories. Critics of Sanders, in their postmortem of that campaign, argued that too much of a focus on economics blinded him and his supporters to other forms of cultural, racial, and sexual oppression and to the vicious racial and misogynistic animus that drives many Trump voters.
But the ongoing backlash against the promise of equality, as it emerged from World War II, suggests that an either/or debate—were backlashers motivated by racial hatred or by a desire to defend the economic hierarchy?—doesn’t hold up. The United States came out of the war with unprecedented global power, which meant that the line separating domestic from foreign policy became ever more blurred. Conservatives, both in Congress and the legal profession, became particularly alert to the threat of international treaties and regional alliances, many of which condemned racism and affirmed social rights.
Fearing that the federal government would cite such international pacts to advance desegregation and social rights, those opposed to one or the other (and many were opposed to both, since they understood racial and economic equality as indistinguishable evils, as two edges of the same subversive sword) mobilized against foreign treaties they considered suspect, including the Treaty of San Francisco, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As the “darker nations” took up the fight to legitimize social and economic rights, the opposition intensified, with individual rights embodying whiteness and social rights exemplifying blackness—used by many, not just movement conservatives, to define what Du Bois earlier famously called “the color line.”
One fight, involving Puerto Rico, a possession of the United States since 1898, is especially illustrative of the hold that individual-rights exclusivism had on US politics. The island’s residents were considered citizens by the 1950s, but its status remained unclear. Some residents fought for independence, while others wanted to keep a relationship with the United States, either as a quasi-autonomous commonwealth or through admittance into the Union as a state. Wherever one might stand on that question, a vast majority of Puerto Ricans wanted social democracy: In 1952 residents voted overwhelmingly to approve a new Constitution that recognized “the right of every person to obtain work” and the right of “social protection in the event of unemployment, sickness, old age, or disability.” But since the island was a US possession, Washington had veto rights over its Constitution.
Upon seeing a draft of the charter, Republicans and Southern Democrats—the same congressional alliance that opposed civil rights—acted as if they had just read a proposal to resurrect the Freedmen’s Bureau. “This is evil and will ultimately render null and void other protections granted to individuals,” said one House member; “if we approve this, it will be one of the greatest blows ever struck against the freedom of men. It means the citizens will be wards of the government.” Indiana Representative Charles Halleck said it was “as different from our Bill of Rights as day from night.” The line separating foreign and domestic policy may have been indistinct, but with Puerto Rico it was especially murky. Halleck feared that inclusion of social rights guarantees in the charter of a neocolonial possession could bind the nation as a whole to its promises.
Summoned to appear before Congress, the document’s drafters were asked if they believed the inclusion of social rights in their text imposed “any possible obligation upon the United States of America to provide any of these benefits.” Puerto Rico’s representatives hedged. The idea, they said, was to create a set of cultural expectations that no one in a free society should starve or go without work or die from lack of health care. But such expectations were the last thing those legislators wanted to create. Congress eventually approved the charter, but not before stripping out all references to social rights.
The fight went on. In the 1970s, after Vietnam and Watergate, with confidence in US-style capitalism at an all-time low and with Third World countries making a strong push for a more robust acceptance of economic rights, policy-makers and intellectuals in the new conservative movement clustering around Reagan fought back, putting forward an ethical defense of American power centered on the ideal of individual rights. William Clark, a deputy secretary of state for Reagan, worked to return the concept of human rights to its purer “American” understanding, pared down to align with individual rights. Richard Allen, Reagan’s national security adviser, agreed, saying that “the notion of economic and social rights is a dilution and distortion of the original meaning of human rights.” The only universal rights, Allen said, were to “life, liberty, property.” Not to health care, education, or housing. This narrow understanding of human rights, aligned with the New Right’s rehabilitation of the Jacksonian minima, was reinforced by the emerging human rights establishment, with documents like Charter 77 and organizations such as Helsinki Watch and Human Rights Watch putting forth what people like Allen would say was a more properly American version of human rights, defined exclusively as political rights.
Like “freedom,” the idea of “individual rights” could be deployed both as universal appeal (on behalf of people trampled by tyranny) and as racist dog whistle. It is impossible to extricate individual rights—to possess and to bear arms and to call on the power of the state to protect those rights—from the bloody history that gave rise to those rights, from the entitlements that settlers and slavers wrested from people of color as they moved across the land. “Individual rights,” as Mississippi Representative Trent Lott let slip in 1984, “are things that Jefferson Davis and his people believed in.”
Both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—the respective leaders of last century’s two great political coalitions, the New Deal and the New Right—called for a second bill of rights. FDR did so to codify what he hoped would be a permanent change in the country’s ideal of citizenship, one based on mutual obligation and social solidarity. Reagan did so as part of a program to roll back that ideal.
And now Bernie Sanders is calling for a “21st-century bill of rights,” one that he says would complete FDR’s “unfinished business”—by which he means recognition that the political freedom enshrined in the Constitution requires social equality, or at least guaranteed social security. In so doing, Sanders, often tagged as a class reductionist, is laying out a theory of culture, power, and history that goes far beyond class reductionism. Other candidates running for the Democratic nomination also have good, progressive, redistributive proposals for any given problem. And all understand the commonweal as consisting of something more than individualism unbound. They talk about community, obligation, and caring. But only Sanders is leading a frontal assault on the enemy’s strongest ideological point: individual-rights exclusivism.
A creedal adherence to individual rights defined in opposition to social rights is the structuring tension of all the many wings of the modern conservative movement, a good/evil, white/black distinction that helps make sense of the world and helps explain away crises caused by the movement’s success, by decades of social service cuts, union busting, austerity, market fundamentalism, concentration of wealth, environmental degradation, militarized policing, criminalization of migrant labor, and growing inequality. Social democracy may not be what advocates for reparations mean when they say that the federal government has an obligation to make financial restitution for slavery. But it’s what the right understands it to mean, as it habitually racializes not just social democracy but even the mildest redistributionist policies. “Obama’s entire program is reparations!” Rush Limbaugh said in 2009.
Individual-rights absolutism is the flywheel that keeps all the cruel constituencies of the modern right spinning, uniting the various wings—fringe and what’s called mainstream—of the Republican Party, joining Ayn Rand libertarians, free market wonks, climate change denialists, Second Amendment fundamentalists, nativists (especially since most Latin American migrants come from countries with strong social rights traditions), corporate Prometheans, misogynists, and of course, white supremacists.
Break that wheel, and you break the movement.