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Proud to be a Socialist?

bernie-sanders-portrait-01-1600x1134An amazing thing is happening in the primary elections for the American presidency – and it’s not Donald Trump. Mr Trump, in any case, “doesn’t like losers” and, having lost in Iowa, should presumably now be “re-considering his position”.

The amazing thing is happening on the other side of the political divide. The Iowa primary ended in a virtual dead-heat between Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner and assumed shoo-in, and 74 year-old Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont, who started the race as a virtual no-hoper.

Hillary Clinton, by far the best-known of the Democratic candidates, carries some baggage as a consequence, and there will be those who claim to have foreseen that her less than spotless record would eventually catch up her. But the real surprise is not her relatively poor showing, but the rise to prominence of the elderly and hitherto little-known Bernie Sanders.

It has been widely assumed that Senator Sanders is to all intents and purposes unelectable.   His age and relative obscurity would in any case count against him, but the real disqualification, it is believed, is that he is a self-declared socialist.

It is hard to think of a label that would more surely destroy a candidate’s chances in an American primary election. This is a country in whose politics even the term “liberal” is a dirty word and is used as an attack weapon in much of the political discourse.

A “socialist” is even further beyond the pale. The political right in the US has invested huge effort and resources in convincing American voters that socialism is akin to – even identical with – communism, and is fundamentally un-American.

No candidate in his or her right (or even left) mind would willingly allow even a whiff of such a label to taint their campaign. So how does a candidate who not only embraces it and uses it proudly as a banner manage to do so well with the voters – in Iowa and possibly elsewhere as well?

He is, after all, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, not only in the US but in much of the English-speaking world. Left-of-centre politicians in New Zealand, the UK, Australia and Canada, long ago conceded that to be labelled as a socialist is the kiss of death.

That concession is, of course, all of a piece with the loss of intellectual self-confidence that has afflicted the left in the English-speaking democracies. Not content with failing to challenge the right on their analysis of what constitutes a successful economic policy, or of how a strong and healthy society can tolerate growing inequality, or of what is the proper role of government, left politicians have conceded the language of politics as well.

The banner that was once flown proudly by those who proclaimed the virtues of greater equality, of a fair deal for all, of an inclusive economy that allows everyone to contribute and to derive the benefit from being members of society has now been fearfully disowned.

So, what explains the surprising courage that Bernie Sanders has shown, and the success that, so far at least, he has enjoyed? Even if his campaign were to stall from this point on, and he were to return to decent obscurity, how are we to account for the fact that his willingness to describe himself as a socialist did not immediately knock him out of the race?

The answer lies in listening carefully to what he says. He hasn’t used his socialism as either a sword or a shield. He has instead carefully explained what he means by it. He has assumed, rightly it seems, that people are willing to look behind the label – a label whose meaning has consistently been misrepresented to them – and to understand what it really means.

When Bernie Sanders says he wants “an economy that serves the interests of working people and not the billionaire class”, when he laments the plight of graduates who end up with low-paid jobs and deep in debt, when he commits to equal pay for women, he recognises that the natural tendency of a “free-market” economy is to concentrate wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, leaving the majority to fight amongst themselves for what is left.

His message – that unless democratic government intervenes to regulate the “free” market and its outcomes, the rich will get richer and the poor poorer – is, it seems, well understood by a large swathe of more thoughtful voters. In describing himself as a socialist – someone who sees that we are all in this together and that there is such a thing as society – he also creates the advantage for himself of pointing up how much he differs from Donald Trump.

Trump is of course the archetypal “free” marketer. He is a cartoon version, a parody, of what the “free “market means. He is a self-obsessed “winner”, he hates “losers”, and he is used to grabbing what he can and devil take the hindmost.

Bernie Sanders shows that people will respond to his very different message, but only if they hear it – and that requires someone with the courage to deliver it to them.   Some of that courage would not come amiss in other western democracies.

This article previously appeared at Bryan’s own blog


  1. Dave Roberts says:

    I am afraid, much as I like him, that he will hand the election to The Republicans. If it’s between he and Rubio it’s the latter.

  2. James Martin says:

    Sanders is an example of how even without a social democratic or socialist party of any size, class politics will still make itself felt, although the previous highpoint for US socialism was just prior to WWI where Eugene Debs picked up just under a million votes (6%) for the Socialist Party of America. After WWI the movement was split between socialist and communist (and from the 30s Trotskyist) factions, and of course after WWII you had McCarthy and the final capitulation of the unions to become tame Democrat financers.

    And it is possibly the unions now that are the most interesting factor to pay attention to. Membership is down to 11%, although with some signs that it is rising (and it is still higher than France at 8%), but many unions are key to both how much success and money the Democrat candidates can access and also how they are then promoted to their members in thousands of workplaces. Last Autumn Clinton seemed to have a number of key unions in the bag (the US TUC equivalent the AFL-CIO normally waits until there is a clear frontrunner before expressing formal support for a candidate), but since then Sanders has been building a lot of links, particularly at shop level, that may pull some unions towards formal endorsement of him in the same way as key unions here endorsed Corbyn following similar pressure from their activists and executives. Certainly right now there is still everything to play for and the space is opening up to debate socialist ideas that hasn’t existed for decades.

    1. John Walsh says:

      How cautious should we be given that the Iowa caucuses are by far the most hyped presidential contests? From what I can see, around 190k votes were cast in the Republican contest. Unfortunately, the Democratic ‘delegate count’ is supposed to be a closely guarded secret. According to Wikipedia, in the 2012 Presidential election the Democratic vote was 822k and the Republican 730k. Also, as of Feb 1st there were just over 2 million registered voters in the State. My point is, don’t we have to be careful when trying to interpret what is a relatively small turn-out?

  3. swatantra says:

    Surely they don’t have socialists’ as we know them, in America. America is a capitalist country. Bernie is probably more of a ‘liberal’ entity than a socialist, ad might fit in with the Islington set, or Hampsted but that’s about it.
    He has absolutely no chance of getting the nomination. Bernie is running 20 years too late, and is giving nomination to Hilary on a plate, as there is no other credible Democratic challenger. And Hillary would be a disaster as President, carrying far too much baggage with her, Bill being one of the items.
    Which means that its very likely that the Republicans will make a come back, in the form of that idiot Trump or that conservative nut Cruz.
    A great pity, on both sides of the Pond we’ll have the Neo-Cons back again.

  4. David Ellis says:

    Well I hope he beats Clinton to the nomination but socialism is the belief that the means of production should be owned socially not privately. Not sure Bernie believes that. I think he’s a regulating left liberal.

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