• Marc Johnson

Bernie Sanders: Socialist…

     “I call him a socialist-slash-communist because that’s what he is.”

                                       – Donald Trump on Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

– – – –

Conventional political wisdom holds – we all know how “conventional” the current campaign has become – that Bernie Sanders has no (nadda, zip, zero) chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, let alone reaching the Oval Office.

Unthinkable, the Beltway Gasbags say, that the former mayor of the People’s Republic of Burlington wins, even though Vermonters have been sending him to Washington since 1991.

Senator Bernie Sanders


Sanders must then be doomed by his age? He is 74-years old.

Or maybe it’s his unruly shock of white hair that looks like it was styled in a wind tunnel. Maybe he’s too Jewish. Maybe its because he comes from Vermont, a small, weirdly shaped state that unless you are from New Hampshire (or Canada), most Americans couldn’t find on a map.

Or perhaps it’s the native New Yawker in Sanders, who sounds like a Big Apple cab driver, well at least he sounds like the kind of cab driver New York had before all New York cab drivers started sounding like they grew up in Somalia or Pakistan.

Maybe Sanders’ positions on the issues will disqualify him, even though a good number of polls indicate that many, many Americans agree with Sanders’ call to deal with income inequality and educate young people without saddling them with a lifetime of tuition debt.

It’s All About the “S” Word…

None of his apparent political shortcomings – age, hair style, positions – fully explains why Sanders has a “he can’t be elected” problem. His real problem is the “S” word – he’s a s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-t.

Actually, Bernie describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” which in real life – and in Europe and Canada – means he believes in the democratic political process – things like elections, representative government, trying to convince others to agree with you. But, he also believes the system is too often rigged to leave out the little guy. What a radical idea. He’s actually been very consistently saying this for, like, 40 years.


But why? Why has only the United States among the rest of the world’s industrial and, yes democratic societies, never had a particularly serious socialist political movement? Canada, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, on and on have a 20th Century tradition of what Sanders calls democratic socialism, but not the United States.

But before we lock up the women and children and worry about nationalizing the railroads, let’s consider what Sanders (and others of similar ilk) have actually said and done over the course of American history and why the term and the idea have become such political kryptonite.

In their book It Didn’t Happen Here – Why Socialism Failed in the United States authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks observe that an American “working class party,” with a foundation of trade union members, never caught on in the U.S. precisely because what social democrats offer is what many Americans already believe they have – “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society.” The authors call it Americanism.

In essence, although most Americans would never say it this way, we have long embraced a political philosophy – Americanism, if you will – that is wrapped up in our aspirations, our myths, and our ideas of exceptionalism. Americanism is also deeply rooted in our notion that our political system is in no way separate from free market capitalism and that by extension, capitalism translates to “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist” society.

As a result, when a political candidate suggests that capitalism might not be the complete answer to American issues like wide spread poverty, racial or class inequality or, just to mention one of Sanders’ key issues, making certain every young person who wants a higher education gets one.

Capitalism = Democracy…

For most of the 20th Century the Americanism equals capitalism construct has defined American politics. To suggest that capitalism might not be the answer to every one of society’s issues has been a good way to get branded with, well, the socialist label. Suggest that the really wealthy need to pay a greater share of taxes because, well, they can afford to do so and you are guilty of “class warfare,” the ugly twin of socialism.

But it wasn’t always so. Once the Sanders’ notion of “democratic socialism” was seen as a legitimate alternative to the policy prescriptions of conservative Republicans and more left of center Democrats.

Wilson, TR and Taft in 1912


In the election of 1912, one of the most interesting, complicated, and important presidential elections in our history, four major candidates sought the White House. Two of the contenders – Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Bull Moose ticket, and the election winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson – were certainly not socialists, but did advocate a robust form of progressive politics that included sweeping attacks on the excesses of big business, support for organized labor, and improvements in the lives and economic conditions of working Americans.

A third candidate, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, was a kind of “establishment Republican” of his day and ours. Taft would not be out of place or uncomfortable in the modern Republican Party of John Boehner or Jeb Bush. Taft was a candidate embraced by big business, a big man with little interest in the kind of “activist” presidency that Roosevelt or Wilson personified.

Eugene V. Debs


The fourth major candidate in 1912 was a socialist – Eugene Victor Debs, an Indiana-born, railroad union leader who ran for president five different times. Debs captured nearly a million of the 15 million votes cast in 1912 – his issues then were essentially Sanders’ issues now – and that election proved to be the high water mark of American socialism.

Eight years later Debs was running for president again, but this time from behind the bars of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta where he was doing time for speaking against U.S. involvement in the Great War, a victim of the era’s hysteria about “radicals” who dared to veer from conventional ideas about American patriotism.

The “Radical” Ideas of Eugene V. Debs…

At the end of Debs’ trial – he was convicted under the Sedition Law of 1917 – he spoke to the court and said, in part:

“In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…”

Little surprise that as a young fellow Bernie Sanders produced a documentary on Eugene Debs.

In his fascinating history of the Socialist Party in America, historian Jack Ross details the number of elected officials in the country who were elected on a Socialist ticket, most of them at time Eugene Debs was the American face of socialism. Ross’s list makes for interesting reading.

When Milwaukee and Many Other Cities Elected Socialists…

In the first two decades of the 20th Century, hundreds of Socialists were elected to city councils, as mayors, and state legislators in nearly every state. Wisconsin – take that Scott Walker – elected literally hundreds of Socialists and Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor nearly continuously from 1910 to 1960. One of those mayors, Daniel Hoan, served from 1916-1940 and another, Frank Zeidler, from 1948-1960.

Frank Zeidler was Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor from 1948-1960


These so called “sewer socialists” sounded a good deal like Bernie Sanders in their demands for greater focus on the needs of the working class and they governed well, providing efficient and effective city governments. They would not have been re-elected time and again had they not been good at the nuts and bolts of governing and a good place to look for evidence of Sanders’ version of democratic socialism is his time as a small town mayor.

Butte and Anaconda, Montana had Socialist mayors before the Great War. Socialists were elected as county clerk and sheriff in Minidoka County, Idaho in the same period, a place where no Democrat has been elected in decades. The city of Sisseton, South Dakota had a Socialist mayor and Nebraska elected a Socialist to the state board of regents. But no more.

With the exception of the owners of a few Che Guevara posters leftover from the 1960’s, American socialists are about as prevalent today – and relevant – as, well, Che Guevara.

      “Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it.” – Ronald Reagan

My own theory as to why the socialist philosophy failed to gain greater political traction in the United States relates to the aggressive and very effective demonization of American socialists that began in the post-Civil War era, accelerated during the Red Scare of the 1920’s, climaxed with Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, and has remained a key fixture of conservative political rhetoric ever since. The steady branding of “socialism” as far outside the American mainstream, combined with the conflating of “democratic socialism” with Soviet communism sealed the political fate of the heirs of Eugene V. Debs.

In post-World War I America, the Palmer Raids, initiated by the attorney general in a Democratic administration, rounded up thousands of “radicals,” many of them immigrants, and hundreds were deported because of their alleged leftist or un-American attitudes. America suffered a “red scare” that tended to feature more violations of civil liberties than any real threat to national security.

Congressional committees and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI later lavished attention on leftists in Hollywood, the media, and in government. Increasingly little if any distinction was made between “democratic socialists” and communists, even though you can plausibly argue that anti-communism (and anti-socialism), with all its excesses, has been a far more powerful force in American politics than any theory advanced by Karl Marx.

Joe McCarthy’s “red baiting” in the early 1950’s briefly made him the most feared and loathed man in the country and his reckless methods destroyed careers and reputations. Every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt has been called a socialist or a communist by someone on the political right. Roosevelt, a New York multi-millionaire, was no socialist and, ironically, may have actually saved the country – and American capitalism – from moving to a radical leftist place during the Great Depression. Still the far right, even now, laments the “socialist” agenda of the New Deal.

Even FDR was a “Socialist…”

Roosevelt did accomplish some radical change – massive spending on public works, breaking up the huge and often corrupt utility holding companies, creating an old-age pension program that has proven to be kind of popular ever sense – and FDR did try to implement large scale planning of the economy with the National Industrial Recovery Act. The Supreme Court told him no.

I love the story of Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins testifying before Congress on the legislation we now call Social Security. A skeptical senator, probing for the Achilles heel of the idea that the government might create actually create a program we all pay into in order to provide a degree of security for all of us in old age, pressed Ms. Perkins: “Isn’t this just a tiny bit of socialism,” the senator asked. No, she replied, it isn’t.

Loyalty Oaths, Alger Hiss, the John Birch Society…Oh, My…

After World War II and into the Cold War, Harry Truman, in so many ways an exemplary president and person, instituted “loyalty oaths” to root out communists (who now interchangeably were also called socialists), state legislatures debated the so-called “Liberty Amendment” to the Constitution in the interest of making America more American, the John Birch Society equated American political liberalism with Stalinist communism, and we fought a war in Southeast Asia designed to stop the insidious expansion of the socialist/communist ideology.

Commie hunter Richard Nixon was a junior congressman when he went after former State Department official Alger Hiss. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS


Richard Nixon owed his national profile while still a very junior member of Congress to his pursuit of Alger Hiss, one of the few people from the 1950’s who actually did have questionable allegiance to his country. Nixon, according to his most recent biographer, clung to the memory of his victory over Hiss, ironically, all the way to détente with Moscow and his historic opening to China.

As for that horrid war, Lyndon Johnson, in part, thought he could not stop it for fear of Democrats being labeled soft on communism. Today, of course, Vietnam, still a communist country last I checked, is one of the United States’ top trading partners.

You can write your own 21st Century sentence about what we used to call “Red” China, and as you do, remember that the Chinese president recently dined at the White House with the CEO’s of Microsoft, MasterCard, Netflix, Oracle, Walt Disney, and Morgan Stanley – socialists all, I’m sure.

Bernie Sanders probably won’t be president and you didn’t hear it here first, but like many democratic socialists in America’s past – from Debs to Norman Thomas, one of the most impressive Americans of the last century, to Michael Herrington to the old mayors of Milwaukee – his ideas have relevance and, if you listen closely, contain an important message about what America says it is, but has not yet fully become.

None of these socialists advocated or even privately believed, Sanders included, in violent revolution or the kind of reprehensible system Stalin built in Soviet Russia. They believed in using the tools of democracy, including persuasion and elections, to bring about societal and political change.

But, given our often-tenuous grasp of our own history, not to mention inability to consider nuance, that message gets lost, while the label – “he’s a socialist-slash-communist” – stings and sticks.

“In America today, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the millions of families in the middle are gradually sliding out of the middle class and into poverty,” Sanders says. ”In the final analysis, the people of America are going to have to say that the wealth, labor and natural resources must be used to benefit all the people, not just a few super-rich.”

That is not much different than what the old railroad union member Gene Debs said on the eve of going to prison in 1919 for speaking his mind: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

The Worst Features of Petrograd and the Gilded Age…

It has long been un-American to embrace such language – the workers versus the governing class – but in an age when the super wealthy and super powerful at the very top of our social order display, as historian Jack Ross has written, the “worst features of both Petrograd and the Gilded Age,” the guy who will not win is making lots of noise and lots of people, including many younger Americans, judging by the polls, are listening.

“The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that,” Frank Zeidler, the one-time Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee once told the Nation magazine. “Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual.”

Sounds like a radical idea, doesn’t it? Eugene Debs went to his grave believing, as he often said, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper.”

Bernie Sanders may not get to the White House, but he may convince a new generation of Americans – a generation sick and tired of too much money in politics, too much power in too few hands, and too little hope for a shrinking middle class – to think seriously about what that dreaded word – socialism – might really be all about.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson