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

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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

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. yabbed November 7, 2015

    Bernie Sanders claims now of being a “democratic socialist” is quite a different tune sung than when he was a hippie freak living on unemployment trying to get elected to the public trough as a Socialist Party candidate and a Liberty Party candidate. He is no more qualified to be President of the United States than is Ben Carson or Donald Trump. In fact, both of those fools would defeat him in a general election. But, there’s no cause for concern. Bernie will not get the Democratic nomination. (He isn’t a member of the Democratic Party, you know.) Reuters Tracking Poll shows Clinton 72%, Sanders 23%. NBC shows Clinton 62%, Sanders 31%. And South Carolina has Clinton 71%, Sanders 15%.

    1. CrankyToo November 7, 2015

      Bernie Sanders is infinitely more qualified for the job than either Carson or Trump, neither of whom would have a snowball’s chance against the Senator (or any other Democrat, for that matter) in next year’s general election.

      And you’ve got no business calling anyone else “fool”.

      1. yabbed November 7, 2015

        Middle America elects presidents and Middle America will not elect anyone who is a Socialist. Only 8% of Democrats say they would vote for a Socialist. Of course, Sanders isn’t a Democrat. He has voted consistently against Democratic legislation on gun control, immigration reform, and tax benefits for the working and middle class. He’s a goofball but you GOP operatives really like the idea of him being the nominee you can landslide over, don’t you? 🙂

        1. CrankyToo November 7, 2015

          So, you think I’m a GOP operative, huh?

          One of us is misreading the signs vis-a-vis the Senator’s appeal which, to me, seems to be considerable and ever-increasing. We’ll see in a few months how Bernie will fare in the Democratic primary. I suspect he’ll acquit himself well against Mrs. Clinton, but lose to her nonetheless.

          Bottom line, I doubt we’ll ever know which of us is right as to Bernie Sanders’ chances in a general election, but I personally believe he could beat any of the Republican buffoons on display. From my perspective, the GOP has zero chance of winning the White House at any time in the foreseeable future – against ANY Democrat or Independent.

          1. The lucky one November 7, 2015

            Or against almost anyone at all.

      2. The lucky one November 7, 2015

        But PZ is an expert on fools. He has vast experience in that area.

        1. paulyz November 8, 2015

          I became an expert from dealing with mass amounts of fools on theFar Leftist Memo. Very easy to claim expertise this way.

    2. paulyz November 7, 2015

      You are correct in your post, Americans will not elect a Socialist no matter how they reword it or spin it. They used to run-away from the word Socialist, but now try to repackage it to further the transformation.

      1. The lucky one November 7, 2015

        It’s an extremely rare occurrence but pz is correct in that Americans won’t elect a socialist in 2016 . But that is because there aren’t any socialists in the running or at last none that have dem or gop backing. Sanders is certainly to the left of the other corporatists running but he is not a socialist.

        1. paulyz November 7, 2015

          Sanders isn’t even a Democrat, but is so popular among those in the Democrat Party precisely because the Democrats have turned so Socialist. Sanders is an Independent as well as a Socialist, that the Left doesn’t like to admit, so they try different labels. They are very good at that by the way.

          1. Roscoe79 November 7, 2015

            compassionate conservative, traditionalist, constitutionalist, tea partier, reformacon, independent

            all one thing thing, right-wing radicals

          2. paulyz November 9, 2015

            Naw, your Party is just an extreme Leftist, Socialist Party, now matter how you spin it.

          3. The lucky one November 8, 2015

            Pay attention Pauly, Sanders is a Democrat. Although he is
            certainly to the left of all the other candidates he is not a socialist. You complain about “the Left” labeling people but it’s people like you that think you have understood a person’s position by labeling him. You seldom if ever respond to the ideas presented but I guess that is not your intention.

            Calling someone socialist or labeling their ideas socialist doesn’t
            automatically negate their points although it does let you off the hook as far as investing any energy or thought into actually refuting their position.

          4. paulyz November 8, 2015

            I believe Sanders calls himself a Socialist, maybe he’s trying to run away from that for now to have any chance whatsoever.

          5. The lucky one November 9, 2015

            Actually I believe the term is social democrat but who cares
            what he calls himself or labels that low brow “thinkers” apply to him. If you want to critique him identify specific actions he has taken or statements he has made and show how they are bad. But again that would take some time and energy and that’s not your thing.

            “Democrats have turned so Socialist” I guess you haven’t
            noticed that Clinton is leading and despite her recent rhetoric the former Goldwater girl is right wing in her foreign policy and economics though more to the left on social issues. She has shifted to the left in her rhetoric because, unlike you, she is astute enough to notice that it is what a majority of Americans want. I have no doubt the next president will be a Democrat but that
            gives me little solace if it is HRC.

    3. plc97477 November 7, 2015

      He is now. He changed his affiliation. But you are right he will never be president.

  2. Dominick Vila November 7, 2015

    Unfortunately, the GOP disinformation machine will not waste any time to equate the form of socialism that exists in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and other developed nations with governments focused on improving the standard of living of its citizens – and what both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton support – with the philosophies advanced by Marx and Engels, and put into practice by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, and others. Supporting social programs that benefit the elderly, students, and the poor to appropriation of property, and transitioning private enterprise to the public sector have absolutely nothing in common.

  3. plc97477 November 7, 2015

    So because the “bad guys” of history have claimed the name socialist, we will hate them forever. Maybe we should just stop believing the “bad guys” of history.

  4. Otto Greif November 7, 2015

    The only good socialism is the national kind.

    1. S.J. Jolly November 14, 2015

      Isn’t family economics a form of socialism? I.e., “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” ? (His or hers).

  5. Matforce November 7, 2015

    What we are witnessing today mirrors what happened during the years leading up to the Stock Market crash of ’29, and The Great Depression of the 30s. Namely: Capitalism- run amok!

    The New Deal was arguably a balance struck between Capitalists and the working class. And the cause of the crash is generally accepted and agreed upon as a national emphasis, if not obsession, with Stock Market returns, and the disinvestment in market consumers (aka: working class) via a decent rate of pay to bolster those returns. This led to declining demand, which led to the snowball effect of stockpiling of goods in warehouses, a slow-down in production, and inevitably the downward spiral of dropping prices to clear retail shelves, a drop in market values and the sell-off that led to the crash of ’29.

    It took unprecedented national calamity as well as universal suffering and loss to forge the New Deal, a hibrid between capitalism and democratic socialism.

    The establishment of The Wagner Act, Labor Relations Board, Child Labor Laws, marginal tax rates to incentivize the investment of capital into the USA business sector, and all of the “socialistic” laws that were instituted to fortify a prosperous middle class consumer market were met with opposition by Republican profit-protectors. They called them “socialist,” “communist,” un-American.” Soud familiar?

    But look at the results! The second half of the 20th century- unprecedented prosperity! The American Dream! We won the race to the moon, the cold war against our leading competitors, AND we did it together!

    Now capitalists have found a way to consolidate all the capital to themselves and look where we are…

    Bernie ‘ got it right. There’s gotta be a balance!

    1. dtgraham November 7, 2015

      Damn straight.

  6. dtgraham November 7, 2015

    A democratic socialist politician that I’ve always admired tremendously and once voted for when I was old enough, described his philosophy in his book this way:

    “The democratic socialist philosophy stresses an activist approach to government, in which the instrumentality of government is used to create a more equitable distribution of the goods of the world and a greater equality in the human condition. A social democratic government based on this philosophy can, in very practical ways, realize progressive reforms to bring about greater economic equality and social justice.”

    That sounds like Bernie to me. Starting to sound a little like Hillary these days, for that matter, depending on how loosely you want to interpret those words.

    1. Matforce November 7, 2015

      Your post encapsulates the essence of the American Dream and our days in Camelot.

      You should be careful, dt! Your reference begs the tired rhetorical attacks from the corporatists, their think tanks, and their lackeys in our House and Senate about the damnable redistribution of wealth away from the “makers” to those lazy “takers!” You know the drill…

      Even as the redistribution of the unfathomable wealth of the USA has, in truth, been redistributed from the broad swath of the USA middle class to the top 1%, and the record “multinational” corporate holdings stashed in offshore tax havens.

      It will, I fear, take horrific economic disaster and suffering for our nation to realize the treasonous (if treason is a term attributable to economic matters) policies that have been espoused by our elected Representatives in the hallowed chambers of our legislature to aid the funders of their campaigns in the pursuit of ever larger profit margins and favor for corporations and the Plutocrats, despite the effects of these policies on our nation’s people, or on the nation as a whole.

      1. dtgraham November 7, 2015

        Well said. Your posts are one of a small handful here that are always a must read for me.

        1. Matforce November 7, 2015

          Thanks & likewise, dtgraham.

        2. charleo1 November 8, 2015

          I second that!!!!

          1. dtgraham November 9, 2015

            Yours are in that handful charleo.

      2. nebulafox November 8, 2015

        Not that any of the progressive legislation passed in a torrent from 1964 to 1966 could have been done with any politician in charge not named Lyndon Baines Johnson, the nasty Texan usurper and bete noire of Bobby Kennedy and his Camelot friends. JFK was increasingly moving in the right direction on Civil Rights, but absolutely no way he would have greased that through like Johnson did.

        Just doing my duty as a cynical young’un with a jaded eye toward Boomers and their “Camelot” fantasies. Otherwise, I increasingly agree. Money in politics is a curse, and it has been since 1980.

  7. Bill Gilliland November 8, 2015

    Regardless of the definition, Bernie is still more conservative than FDR ever was. His policies are aimed at bringing back the Democratic Party that we used to have. Today’s GOP is so far gone they would reject William F. Buckley.

    1. nebulafox November 8, 2015

      As people from Noam Chomsky to Bob Dole have mentioned, it’s highly unlikely that Ronald Reagan or George Bush Senior could get through today’s GOP. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford certainly couldn’t, because as per Dole, “Nixon actually had ideas”. Eisenhower would be in “outer space”, as per Chomsky. And let’s not get started on Theodore Roosevelt.

  8. LasloPratt November 13, 2015

    If your plans for the day include driving anywhere on a paved road, you might be a socialist….


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