Socialism has become a subject of debate in American political discourse, perhaps more so than at any time since the beginning of the Cold War.
With that discussion has come a great deal of confusion and controversy. Conservatives have long argued that any form of socialism, democratic or otherwise, is inherently unAmerican. An ideology that all but guarantees economic ruination. A system that is by nature authoritarian and corrosive to individual freedom.
On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist and a leading candidate for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, challenged those arguments head-on in a major speech at George Washington University.
In Sanders’ view, democratic socialism is “quintessentially American.” A continuation of the political traditions of Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. The only system capable of ensuring “true individual freedom” for all Americans and the best antidote to far-right populism and oligarchy.
Political labels like democratic socialism are broad and can be difficult to define. Two people who both describe themselves as democratic socialists may have differing perspectives and disagreements about certain policies.
In his address on Wednesday, Sanders did not delve into the academic nuances of political terminology or attempt to define the term more broadly. Instead, he gave the most detailed outline yet of what democratic socialism means to him, and the core tenets of his long-held vision for the future of America.
‘True Individual Freedom’
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” President Donald Trump said during his State of the Union address in February. “America was founded on liberty and independence – not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Trump’s line brought nearly all of the members of Congress on hand for the speech to their feet. Bernie Sanders, however, remained seated.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 12, 2019
On Wednesday, the Senator argued that people need economic security and independence in order to enjoy “true freedom.”
“What does it really mean to be free?” Sanders said. “Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?”
“No,” his crowd of supporters roared.
“Are you truly free when you are unable to go to a college or a trade school because your family lacks the income?”
“No,” the crowd agreed once more.
“Are you truly free if you are forced to work 60 or 70 hours a week because you can’t find a job that pays you a living wage?”
In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for the creation of a Second Bill of Rights during his final State of the Union Address. After enacting his famous New Deal programs, Roosevelt had been elected for an unprecedented fourth term and was aiming at guaranteeing a basic standard of living to all Americans.
Though he wasn’t literally proposing a list of new amendments to the Constitution, Roosevelt argued that the federal government should guarantee a set of basic economic rights to all Americans.
Roosevelt died in office the next year and his vision never came to fruition. But Sanders said he hopes to “complete what [Roosevelt] started,” proposing a “21st Century Economic Bill of Rights” for the first time Wednesday.
Similar to what Roosevelt had proposed 75 years earlier, Sanders’ 21st Century version has six parts:
- The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
- The right to quality health care
- The right to a complete education
- The right to affordable housing
- The right to a clean environment
- The right to a secure retirement
While the original Bill of Rights protects Americans from the tyranny of an oppressive government, Sanders’ proposal takes aim at what he views as a different but pervasive form of tyranny.
“Many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires,” he said. “It is time for the American people to stand up and fight for their right to freedom, human dignity and security.”
Defeating the Far-Right
Drawing on the history of the early 20th Century, Sanders also made the case that his strand of democratic socialism is the best answer to authoritarian, right-wing populism.
Pointing to far-right nationalist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Victor Orbán, and even Trump, Sanders said they all “redirect popular anger about inequality and declining economic conditions into violent rage against minorities.”
But this “authoritarian playbook” isn’t new, Sanders said, noting similar forces were prevalent throughout the world before and after the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the worst of which was the rise of Nazism.
Though the far-right became a threat in the U.S., Americans ultimately embraced a different path.
“We rejected the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler – we instead embraced the bold and visionary leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” Sanders said.
Today, in another era of widespread popular anger and disillusionment, Sanders’ argued that trying to protect the status quo is not enough and that Democrats must put forward a bold, transformative agenda of their own.
Doing so, however, won’t be easy Sanders conceded.
“I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur,” he said.
But those attacks are not unique to Sanders and today’s progressives.
“In this regard, President Harry Truman was right when he said that: ‘Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years,’” he said.
Trump loves socialism… for billionaires and massive corporations. pic.twitter.com/xg56XtJmC1
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 13, 2019
Sanders then went on the offensive, accusing Trump and other detractors of being hypocrites for their support of what he called “corporate socialism” – like subsidies for oil companies, tax breaks for corporations like Amazon, and the $700 billion bailouts the federal government gave to the financial industry following the 2008 crash.
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Sanders argued that the U.S. has “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
Sanders acknowledged that like Roosevelt, he faces staunch opposition from some of the most powerful interest groups in the country, like big banks and the military-industrial-complex.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” Sanders said, quoting Roosevelt’s famous 1936 campaign speech. “They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”
In the face of these challenges, the Senator said that even winning the presidency would not be enough to bring about his vision for the country’s future.
“The only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.”