“Do I think Bernie Sanders should talk about democratic socialism? Yes, I do,” says Iowan Mary Clark. “I want him to explain everything in detail—give people a really good explanation. People who like Bernie are probably going to like him a little more if he does that. And people who aren’t supporting Bernie now might just say, ‘It sounds like he’s got some ideas that would actually solve our problems.’”
Clark isn’t a pundit or a pollster; nor does she sell herself as an expert on economics or presidential politics. She’s a rural Iowan who worries a lot about whether her neighbors will have clean water, decent housing, and fair pay. She’s worked a few minimum-wage jobs herself, and she knows a lot of folks who are struggling to get by along the rural routes that pass through her corner of Iowa’s Polk County. She talks to them about politics, and she always talks up Sanders. People like what they hear, she says. “But then they hear these guys on television saying, ‘Bernie Sanders can’t get elected because he’s a democratic socialist.’ So Bernie has to talk about it. But he doesn’t have to apologize for anything. He should say, ‘You’re wrong—I can get elected as a democratic socialist, and here’s why.’”
As he prepared to deliver one of the most important speeches of his presidential campaign, the independent senator from Vermont got a lot of advice on how to explain the democratic-socialist ideal that he’s embraced for more than five decades—an ideology that Donald Trump equates with Soviet-style communism and Rand Paul promises will “exterminate” those who do not follow the party line.
Sanders, who has said that he would like to debate Republicans and Democrats as part of his boundary-breaking presidential run, might yet find that the best way to demythologize the notion of democratic socialism would be in a spirited debate with a member of the billionaire class like Trump. In the meantime, he finds himself leading a discussion that American politics and the American media haven’t really entertained since the days of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate who appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was featured on a daily basis in The New York Times’s coverage of the 1932 presidential race.
Talking about democratic socialism is nothing new for Sanders. In fact, what distinguishes his candidacy from that of any nationally noted contender since Thomas is that he not only accepts the label but willingly engages in extended discussions of the concepts, values, and models associated with it. “I’m not afraid of the word,” he told The Nation earlier this year, adding that “Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, often criticizes President Obama—incorrectly—for trying to push ‘European-style socialism,’ and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked [by] those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding.”
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Actually, that’s been one of the goals of Sanders’s entire career. With remarkable consistency over the decades, he has patiently distinguished between democratic socialism and Soviet-style communism, expressed “continued opposition to authoritarianism and the concept of the one-party state,” defended civil liberties, and explained, as he did after his election to Congress in 1990: “To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means; it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.” Like many American democratic socialists in the post–World War II era, he has talked up the Scandinavian model of social democracy. “Healthcare is, of course, a right for all people” in countries like Norway and Denmark, which have “very strong” childcare and retirement systems, he notes. In addition, “all of their kids can go to college; not only do they go for free, they actually get stipends.” And “they are very active in trying to protect their environment.” Although taxes in these countries are high, the public services are robust and the social-safety net is sturdy.
“And, by the way,” Sanders adds, “the voter turnout in those countries is much higher; in Denmark, in the last election, it was over 80 percent. Political consciousness is much higher than it is in the United States. It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. So why would I not defend that?”
Many social scientists and economists agree. Political economist Francis Fukuyama uses “getting to Denmark” as a metaphor for democratic development that’s headed in the right direction. Yet, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted in this year’s first Democratic debate, a small Northern European country might not be the best metaphor for America. Cooper, though he may not have known it, was engaging in the latest political craze: explaining to Bernie Sanders the best way to promote democratic socialism to American voters. After so many years of neglect and misstatement, there’s a lot of pent-up energy among democratic socialists as well as small-D democrats who want to open up the political discourse to include serious alternatives to the crony-capitalist status quo. Sanders himself fits into both camps—and he is smart enough to recognize that if his presidential candidacy doesn’t frame that debate, the debate will frame his candidacy, probably to his detriment. Indeed, as Cooper argued during the debate, when democratic socialism is the topic, “the question is really about electability.”
So why not turn from the usual circle of pundits to the people who actually do the electing? The best advice for what should become a continuing discussion long after this presidential season is over comes from the grassroots, from places like Davenport and Des Moines, where citizens will, in just three months, begin the process of choosing the Democratic nominee. Iowa caucus-goers treat presidential politics seriously—and practically. They tend toward progressivism, with a healthy Midwestern skepticism about big corporations, big money in politics, and a military-industrial complex that keeps talking up the next war. But, says Ed Fallon, a former Democratic state legislator and gubernatorial-primary candidate, “they like to think that their candidate can win in November.”
Iowa has for decades been a swing state in presidential contests, and Iowa Democrats have long practiced what Michael Harrington preached: searching for the left wing of the possible. Harrington, author of the 1962 classic The Other America, counseled the Kennedys and aides to Lyndon Johnson on how to wage a “war on poverty.” In the early 1980s, Harrington co-founded the group Democratic Socialists of America with an eye toward building an American version of social democracy along the lines practiced in Denmark, Norway, and other European countries. Harrington argued for situating the movement within the Democratic Party, because it tended to align itself with organized labor, attract working-class voters, and appeal to the young Americans and people of color who might be most open to an alternative politics.
However, the late 1980s and ’90s saw the emergence of a dramatically more cautious Democratic Party, with the “left wing of the possible” dumbed down by “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton, who veered away from the Democrats’ traditional allies in labor and other social movements and toward new allies on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Where Franklin Roosevelt welcomed the hatred of bankers and CEOs, and met at the White House with “my good friend Norman Thomas” and other Socialist Party leaders, Clinton as president undid New Deal–era regulations on big banks, and President Obama once called a New York Times reporter to point out not only that he was not a socialist, but that his administration was “operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles, and some of the same folks who are throwing the word ‘socialist’ around can’t say the same.”
Yet even as the Democratic Party tended to grow more cautious, a substantial portion of the party’s base continued to embrace Harrington’s left wing of the possible. In the upper Midwest, activists warmly embraced Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who talked up the uniquely radical legacy of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s pro-labor, pro-farmer prairie populism. Wellstone and Harkin didn’t identify as democratic socialists, but they kept alive an old-school progressive-populist sensibility. More recently, Sanders, their friend and frequent ally, has returned that sensibility to center stage with bolder language and bolder plans for ending austerity, taxing the rich, and tipping the balance in favor of working Americans.
Grassroots Democrats got to know Sanders as a frequent guest on MSNBC cable shows, on Thom Hartmann’s radio show, and as a tireless traveler to progressive gatherings across the country. It never seemed to bother the base that he was a democratic socialist, because democratic socialism never seemed to bother the base. Long before Sanders considered making a presidential bid, a 2012 Gallup survey found that while 55 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of capitalism, a nearly equal amount—53 percent—had a favorable view of socialism. An October 2015 YouGov poll shows a growing divide, with Democrats favoring socialism over capitalism by 12 percentage points. Among young people and people of color, socialism polls significantly better than among the general population. But polls also find that only half of Americans say they would vote for a socialist for president (59 percent of Democrats, 49 percent of independents, 26 percent of Republicans). That raises the electability issue, and it’s one reason Sanders started talking about delivering a “major speech” on socialism—something he probably should have done much earlier in the campaign. “I think we have some explaining and work to do,” the senator told an audience at an Iowa house party, acknowledging that the word “socialist” makes some people “very, very nervous.”
It doesn’t have that effect on George Naylor, a farmer-activist from Churdan, Iowa: “Oh, I never thought it was as much of a problem as people say.” An outspoken advocate for family farmers, he adds that “the way to talk about socialism is to remind people of what they don’t like about most politicians: They’re too close to big business. Well, democratic socialists aren’t close to big business. They want to make sure big business doesn’t run over the rest of us. Talk about it that way, and even some folks who think they’re conservatives might say, ‘That makes sense.’”
That’s a good place to start tapping into the populist sentiment that has always gotten Americans thinking about economic and political alternatives. That mood rises when capitalism is in crisis—or when many Americans feel, as they do now, that existing systems are failing them. The whole point of the “political revolution” that Sanders argues for is to get millions of Americans to respond to those failures by engaging politically. If that happens, it won’t be the first time that economic turbulence has inspired interest in social-democratic solutions.
It was during the economic downturn culminating in the Panic of 1797 that Thomas Paine wrote Agrarian Justice, in which he outlined a social-welfare state with estate taxes used to fund universal old-age and disability pensions and a onetime payment to citizens to help lift them out of poverty. A century later, the Panic of 1893 brought a new generation of radicals to the fore, including Eugene Debs. The American Railway Union leader would eventually head a Socialist Party presidential ticket that twice gained nearly a million votes and elected members of the US House, as well as big-city mayors and substantial legislative caucuses in states like Wisconsin and Oklahoma.
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Historian Eric Foner urges Sanders to “embrace our own American radical tradition” rather than “inadvertently [reinforce] the idea that socialism is a foreign import.” Historian Harvey Kaye goes a step further, encouraging Sanders to say that “social democracy is 100 percent American” and to explain that this country has a rich history of leading rather than following Europe when it comes to guaranteeing universal access to public education and setting aside land for public parks. They’re right. But Sanders has to focus on more than just the academic argument, which he could easily win; he has to focus on the electability question. As such, he must make the point that American socialists have advanced their agenda in the past by winning elections—lots of them. For more than a century, socialists, social democrats, and allied radicals have been winning elections all across America—from New York to Los Angeles, from Oklahoma to Minnesota. They have run big cities and school boards, they have written laws, and they have provided the impetus for the creation of state banks, worker-compensation programs, public-health programs, and now-cherished institutions like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Debs’s successor as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate was Norman Thomas, counselor to presidents and inspiration to the leaders of unions like the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Thomas addressed the 1963 March on Washington at the behest of the man who called the march, Socialist Party stalwart and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union leader A. Philip Randolph. Thomas later allied with Randolph and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as they worked on the unfinished business of the civil-rights revolution by promoting a “Freedom Budget for All Americans,” which advocated social-welfare programs similar to those Sanders now hails in Denmark and Norway.
Sanders must make the argument that the political revolution he’s calling for will occur only if his candidacy goes beyond a protest vote or educational endeavor and becomes an actual movement, similar to the Robert F. Kennedy coalition of the 1968 primaries, which aligned working-class white, Latino, and African-American voters with liberals and students. Sanders would do well to take the advice of Joe Fagan, a founder of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI). Discussing the left wing of the possible, Fagan points out that “there are a lot of good examples from around the world. But there are some pretty good examples right here: schools, libraries, roads…. “There’s nothing scary about what Bernie is saying,” Fagan adds. “He’s fighting for what people believe in, what they want. That’s how he should talk about it. Free college education—who doesn’t want that? Break up the banks—who isn’t for that? Addressing inequality—who is opposed to that?”
Lou Ann Burkle, a CCI activist, argues that Sanders has a unique opportunity to open up the debate across the country. “You can change the conversation by putting things in perspective,” she says. Tim Tutt, an elementary school teacher from Des Moines, suggests that Sanders “shouldn’t just explain democratic socialism,—he should explain capitalism.” An experienced Iowa caucus-goer, Tutt says that a lot of Iowans, like a lot of Americans, know that with bank bailouts, corporate abuses, and the widening gap between rich and poor, “what we’ve got now isn’t working.” Just as Roosevelt tempered the excesses of capitalism with a New Deal during the Great Depression, Tutt says, Sanders should lay out why he thinks democratic socialism can temper the excesses of contemporary capitalism.
“It’s not something you do in a sound bite,” warns Sharon Guber, a retired teacher from Ames. But, says Fallon, the former legislator, “if you’re being called a democratic socialist by people who think that’s a bad thing, then the only way to deal with that is to talk about why you think it’s a good thing.”
“Sure, it’s a big conversation,” says Naylor, the farm activist. “So what? If you’re running for president, you ought to be able to get a big conversation going. That’s what people want you to be able to do.” He smiles and points to a Sanders for President sign, with an outline of Iowa and the words “The Revolution Starts Here.”