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What Kind Of ‘Socialism’ Is This? Sanders Claims Mantle Of New Deal

Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect.

In 1916, amid the carnage of World War I, the great German-Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote that humanity was facing a choice between socialism and barbarism.

Earlier today, speaking at the George Washington University, Bernie Sanders noted that we live in a time of rising authoritarianism, citing the regimes of Putin, Xi, Orban, Duterte and Trump as indices of the growing threat. His speech was billed as offering his definition of socialism, which, a la Rosa, was said to be the alternative to oligarchy and authoritarianism.

Socialism as Sanders proceeded to define it is indeed an alternative to oligarchy and authoritarianism. What his speech left hanging was whether his socialism was in fact socialism.

In 2015, as his campaign was just taking off, Sanders came to a different D.C. university—Georgetown—to deliver what was also then billed as his definition of socialism. Before a crowd of wildly cheering college students, he reeled off a series of social democratic proposals—the universal right to health care, to college education and the like – with constant reference to the great American leader who did indeed lead the successful war against barbarism in the 1940s: Franklin Roosevelt. His speech was so FDR-centric that I wrote at the time:

Throughout the 1930s, Republicans claimed that Franklin Roosevelt was really a socialist. Today, Bernie Sanders said they were right.

Then, as today, Sanders referenced Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union speech – FDR’s last great speech—in which Roosevelt proposed an Economic Bill of Rights. Today, Sanders formally proposed “a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights,” which included a right to a living-wage job, to “quality health care,” to “a complete education,” to “affordable housing,” to “a clean environment” and to “a secure retirement.”

As if citing Roosevelt were not enough, Sanders also cited Harry Truman, whose efforts to create a Medicare for All program in the 1940s were thwarted by conservatives and the medical profession. He quoted Truman, talking about his critics, at length:

Socialism [Truman said] is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.

Nor did Sanders’s talk simply identify socialism with the social democratic reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal. It also contained two crucial omissions.

First, even as Sanders cited Roosevelt and Truman, but he also did not cite any avowed American democratic socialists, save, in passing, Martin Luther King Jr. He made no mention of his great hero, Eugene V. Debs. Nothing on Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s candidate for president in each of FDR’s four elections. Nothing on A. Philip Randolph or Bayard Rustin or Michael Harrington. No reference to Thomas’ line when asked if Roosevelt had actually carried out the Socialist Party’s program. “He carried it out,” Thomas said, “on a stretcher.”

Second, Sanders also omitted his own more socialistic proposals. His speech skipped over some groundbreaking social democratic reforms that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both advocated in the course of the campaign, including dividing corporate boards between shareholder and worker representatives. He made no mention of an American version of the Meidner Plan – a 1970s proposal never quite implemented in Sweden that would gradually transfer the ownership of corporations, through the yearly payment of profits in the form of stock to their employees’ organizations, to their workers.

In short, Sanders’s socialism, as he defined it, is an expansion of America’s semi-demi-welfare state to include more economic rights. It’s an effort to make us a more functional social democracy—which, of course, is no small proposal and by American standards, a great leap forward. But he could have made the same proposals and labeled them neo-Rooseveltian liberalism without straining historical accuracy.

How, then, did his speech depart from his 2015 Georgetown outing? Chiefly, in noting that the world had grown more dangerously authoritarian and xenophobic in the intervening years—a discussion that Sanders also cast in a neo-Rooseveltian light. Twice in his talk, he cited Depression-era rallies at Madison Square Garden: the first, the infamous pro-Nazi rally of 1939; the second, FDR’s election eve speech of 1936—surely, Roosevelt’s most radical oration—in which FDR sounded the anti-oligarchic and anti-authoritarian themes that Sanders is sounding today. This speech, too, Sanders quoted at length:

We had to struggle [Roosevelt said] with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.

No line in Sanders’ speech drew a louder spontaneous standing ovation than that one—the one about welcoming their hatred. And it wasn’t Bernie’s line; it was FDR’s.

Sanders’ conflation of democratic socialism with the progressive reforms of an FDR is at some level eminently understandable. Social Security is indeed a social democratic program, as is Medicare; their shortcomings, as Sanders surely realizes in seeking to bolster the first and universalize the second, is that they’re not social democratic enough. In running as a democratic socialist who seeks to complete and update FDR’s agenda, Sanders straddles the very fuzzy border between social democracy and American left liberalism. There, coming from the socialist side, he meets Warren, coming from the liberal side, and a growing number of their fellow Americans.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Salem, Oregon, May 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Celebrating Those Remarkable Mothers Of Social Security

This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the remarkable Mothers of Social Security. Without them, this essential program may never have been born. It certainly would be much less successful and effective.

The Mothers of Social Security pushed for an expansive, ambitious program. When necessary, they fiercely resisted men too cautious to embrace their bold vision. All of us benefit immensely from their work—particularly women, for whom Social Security’s modest benefits are especially important.

Best known of Social Security’s many mothers is Frances Perkins, the first female member of a presidential Cabinet in the history of the country. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt first asked Perkins to become Secretary of Labor, she told him that she would only accept his history-making offer if he agreed to fully support her fight for Social Security, as well as other significant measures to increase all of our economic security. He did. True to her principles and values, she was a driving force behind the healthy start of Social Security, from the system’s conception to its birth and its early growth.

A less-known pathbreaker was Dr. Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, the first tenured female law professor in the country. A Ph.D. economist, she taught both law and economics at Berkeley and authored a landmark treatise, Insuring the Essentials, an exhaustive study of social insurance and minimum wage programs around the world.

Armstrong chaired the Roosevelt administration working group that invented Social Security. Other policymakers, concerned about the constitutionality of Social Security, argued that it should be a state-based program. Armstrong successfully convinced them that only a federal program was workable. When those who oversaw her work contemplated dropping Social Security because they feared it was too big a lift, she leaked their plan to friendly journalists whose exposés got Social Security back on track.

Without Armstrong’s bold leadership and keen intellect, Social Security might not even exist at all today. If that sounds hyperbolic, those same policymakers whom Armstrong outwitted later decided to not propose national, guaranteed health insurance. Cautiously, they decided it was better left for the future. Today, we are still fighting for improved and expanded Medicare for All.

Other remarkable Mothers included two members of the Social Security Board, which administered Social Security prior to a 1946 reorganization that replaced the Board with a single commissioner. Four other women were members of the 1938 Social Security Advisory Council, whose recommendations to add benefits for wives, widows, and dependent children were enacted into law in 1939.

Perhaps it is in part because these and other women were so important to the birth and early development of Social Security that it is so important to women today. Social Security is essential for virtually everyone, but it is particularly critical for women, as well as people of color, the LGBTQ community, and others who have been discriminated against in the workplace.

Even in 2019, women experience a substantial wage gap. It is commonly reported that, on average, a woman earns just 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Yet even that understates the facts. A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reveals that women today actually earn, on average, just 49 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Moreover, the same report exposes the drastic penalty for taking time out of the paid labor force. Women who take just one year off from work suffer 39 percent lower earnings than women who do not. This is especially detrimental since 60 percent of caregivers are female.

Social Security cannot offset all of the ills of society. However, it does seek to offset, to the extent it can, this kind of discrimination in the workplace. From the beginning, Social Security has employed a progressive benefit formula that provides larger benefits, as a percentage of pay, for those who have lower lifetime earnings.

Social Security is also especially important to women, because on average, women live longer than men. Unlike savings, you can’t outlive Social Security, even if you live to be 110. It’s no surprise that women are approximately two out of every three beneficiaries aged 85 and older.

Moreover, Social Security benefits are indexed to inflation, no matter how high inflation is. That is imperative to prevent benefits from eroding as you age. This automatic inflation adjustment, which needs updating, nevertheless is an extremely important feature for everyone, but particularly women. That is because, without adjustment, inflation causes the erosion of benefits to compound with each passing year.

As good as Social Security is, it can and should be better. Past generations of women and men have fought to improve it. Now it is our turn. Our elected Democratic policymakers in Congress are fighting to expand Social Security.

They are fighting to increase Social Security’s modest benefits for all current and future beneficiaries. They are also fighting for targeted improvements. They want to restore the minimum benefit, which no longer provides a meaningful floor because it has eroded so substantially. They are also fighting to update the method of indexing benefits, because the current method under-measures the cost of living of seniors and people with disabilities, who have, on average, higher medical and other costs.

Updating both the minimum benefit and the automatic inflation index disproportionately benefits women. So do other improvements Democrats in Congress are fighting for. These include providing caregivers credit toward Social Security for their invaluable but unpaid caregiving work, and improving benefits for those who are divorced and widowed.

Historically, forward-looking women and men have improved Social Security for those who would follow. It is so appropriate that today’s Democratic leaders, who are growing more diverse, have taken their place in the fight. Perhaps the best way to celebrate this Mother’s Day is for all of us to commit to fighting to expand Social Security, in memory of those brilliant, hard-driving, creative, and compassionate Mothers of Social Security.

Nancy J. Altman is a writing fellow for Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. She is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. Her latest book is The Truth About Social Security. She is also the author of The Battle for Social Security and co-author of Social Security Works!.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

IMAGE: Former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt at the 50th anniversary commemoration at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, March 25, 1961.

New Sanders Posters Channel The New Deal’s Spirit

The Sanders campaign has a new set of posters spreading across the internet. Consisting of an outline of Sanders with his first raised in the air against an off-white background, his shape is filled in with a mosaic of blue, purple, yellow, and red silhouettes. The message is simple: “Not me, Us.”

“I wanted to make an atypical political poster with the people—not the candidate—the focus of the image,” said Aled Lewis, the British artist behind the posters, in an interview. “Bernie is an aperture through which the people are seen and heard.”

The posters were designed to evoke the revolutionary labor spirit of 20th century activism while incorporating the ethnic, sexual, religious and economic diversity of Sanders supporters of 21st century America. That was what drew Lewis to the Sanders campaign.

“Images of vast numbers of people gathered and united in a common purpose can be very powerful and evoke important moments in history,” he said.

“It’s in a long tradition of iconography of multicultural support for a labor oriented candidate,” said Joseph McCartin, a professor of labor history at Georgetown University, of the multilingual Sanders posters. But he distinguished between the recently released posters from those of the New Deal era: “The important difference in the Sanders campaign is building a movement rather than electing a great leader.”

Roosevelt’s strategists focused on the idea of electing a savior, partly because he shared the same name as his distant cousin — the trust-busting populist president Teddy Roosevelt. As evident in Ben Shahn’s iconic 1944 election posters, in which Roosevelt’s face looms large over the out stretched hands of racially diverse American workers with the words “Our Friend” in large, black letters.

Franklin D. Roosevelt FDR 1944 Reelection poster

A 1944 reelection poster for Franklin D. Roosevelt


The inclusion of an outstretched black hand was deeply symbolic, and an important message for the Democratic electorate, according to McCartin. “Roosevelt openly sought black votes and was the Democratic president who was responsible for black voters switching allegiance to the Democratic party,” he said. “At that time, blacks were kept from the vote in the segregated South. The image of the black hand was powerful and potentially explosive in the region.”

Sanders has sought to position himself as a successor to Roosevelt — his economic and social policies, though defined as “Democratic Socialism,” largely reflect the Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and approach to politics. “He acted against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day,” Sanders said to a packed audience at Georgetown University last November. “Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of Americans back to work, took them out of dire poverty, and restored their faith in government.”

While there are a number of similarities between the images, the biggest difference is in Sanders’s message: his posters exist in over a dozen different languages, ranging from Arabic and French to Tagalog and Vietnamese.

Lewis, an active Redditor, said the multilingual posters were the result of feedback and collaboration from the online community, which houses a strong pro-Sanders community. Not long after he published the poster in English, a Chinese-speaking fan of Sanders republished the same poster in Mandarin, followed shortly by a Korean version of his poster. That sparked the idea to publish the same poster in numerous languages.

Despite living in England, Lewis follows the campaign closely, calling it a “full-time obsession.”

“When you examine Bernie’s message, you see it is interconnected with wealth inequality, racial justice, private prisons, healthcare, and gun control,” he said. “People know that the excesses of the financial markets and power wielded by relatively few wealthy individuals has gotten out of hand, but had largely accepted that these structures of power were insurmountable.”

Political posters are no longer just posters — they’re memes, spread across the internet by social media users who see their political opinions reflected in the material that they share. The Sanders posters have been shared over 8,000 times on Facebook since they were posted last Friday.

The last time a single image managed to capture the attention of the public was during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, when Shepard Fairey created the iconic “Hope” poster that came to dominate the collective conscience of the American public. Lewis wanted to take a different approach. “Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster of Obama perfectly reflected people’s focus on Obama as an agent of change,” he said. “I wanted to take a step away from traditional political campaign poster themes and speak more about Bernie’s message of unity and the potential and power of the assembled and organized masses.”

What “Socialism” Means To Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton — And You

Once upon a time, socialists running for president in the United States had to explain that while they had no chance of actually winning an election, their campaigns were aimed at “educating” voters — about socialism.

As a successful politician twice elected to the U.S. Senate and showing very respectable numbers in most presidential primary polls, Bernie Sanders needs no such excuse. He assures voters that he is running to win and there is no reason to doubt him. But win or lose, his campaign nevertheless is proving highly educational for Americans perpetually perplexed by the meaning of “socialism.” Or as Sanders sometimes specifies, “democratic socialism,” or the even milder “social democracy.”

Since the advent of the Cold War and even before then, the multifarious meanings of the S-word were hidden behind the ideological and cultural defenses erected against communism. The Soviet dictatorship and its satellites claimed their authoritarian way was the only true socialism – and conservatives in the West seized that self-serving claim to crush arguments for social justice and progressive governance. American politicians of both parties embraced the blurring of socialism with communism.

But that narrow definition of socialism was always wrong. To accept it meant to ignore fundamental realities, both contemporary and historical – such as the bolstering of the Western alliance by European democracies that called themselves “socialist” or social democratic, all of which had adopted programs, such as universal health care, denounced by American politicians as steps on the road to Communist serfdom. Decades later, of course, those same countries – including all of Scandinavia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom – remain democratic, free, and open to enterprise.

As for the United States, Sanders might recall that this country once had a thriving Socialist Party, which elected mayors in cities like Milwaukee and even sent two of its leaders, Milwaukee’s Victor Berger and New York’s Meyer London, to Congress. Their movement enjoyed not only electoral victories but a strong record of municipal reform and reconstruction. They built sewers to clean up industry’s legacy of pollution; they built public housing; they ensured delivery of publicly owned, affordable water and power; and they cleaned up local government.

Between the triumph of the New Deal and the devastation of McCarthyism, the political space for American socialism virtually vanished. Before they were relegated to the margins, however, the socialists strongly influenced the direction of American social policy.

Long after the various socialist parties had faded, their heirs continued to serve as the nation’s most insistent advocates for reform and justice. Socialists (and yes, communists), were among the leading figures in the civil rights, labor, and women’s movements. It was a remarkable 1962 book by the late, great democratic socialist Michael Harrington, The Other America, that inspired President Kennedy and his brothers to draw attention to the continuing shame of poverty in the world’s richest nation. When Ronald Reagan warned in 1965 that Medicare was a hallmark of “socialism,” he wasn’t too far from the mark – except that 50 years later, the popular program has liberated older Americans, not enslaved them.

Now Bernie Sanders has taken up the old banner in a political atmosphere where more voters – and especially younger voters — are receptive to calm debate instead of hysterical redbaiting.

Certainly Hillary Clinton, whatever her view of Sanders’ ideology, understands social democracy: When her husband was president, the democratically elected socialist leaders of Western Europe were his closest international allies. In her first book, It Takes A Village, she highlighted many of the same social benefits in France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries that Sanders advocates today.

So Clinton knows very well that “socialism,” as her primary rival uses that term, is no frighteningly alien worldview, but merely another set of ideas for organizing society to protect and uplift every human being.

It is long past time for the rest of the American electorate to learn that, too.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) takes part in a rally to preserve union pensions on Capitol Hill in Washington September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts