Bernie Sanders: democratic socialist or social democrat?


Senator Bernie Sanders

The results in yesterday’s Iowa caucus in the US, with the Democrat race between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders virtually neck and neck led me to take a quick look at Sanders’ website. He claims to be a ‘democratic socialist’, which puzzles me.

Socialism is, as far as I am aware, much more of a dirty word in America than in much of Europe, or at least it has been. For sure there are socialists across the pond, but they have seemed to be much more in a minority than over here. Calling yourself a socialist brings an association with anti-capitalism and the history of socialist and communist regimes past and present. Compared with the UK, France, Germany etc, politics and politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, have in recent decades been to the right of their transatlantic contemporaries.

The fact that Sanders has gathered so much support suggests to me that there is much anger at the status quo in the US. Calling himself a socialist doesn’t seem to have done him much harm. But would his support have been even greater had he called himself a social democrat? For a perusal of his website reveals that he is much more the latter than the former. His policies will be familiar to many on the centre left in continental Europe, from Scandinavia and Germany to Austria.

Sanders does not want to abolish capitalism, but he favours a larger role for the state in achieving progressive social outcomes. He favours universal healthcare funded by the taxpayer, which is equivalent to the NHS in the UK. He wants to raise taxes on the rich, abolish loopholes, and dramatically increase funding for public infrastructure such as roads and railways, which is badly needed, creating millions of jobs in the process. He wants to use the levers of the state to reduce inequality and poverty and end the domination of politics by the very rich. This would be some sort of revolution, especially for the US, and harks back to FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s in many ways.

To me this is not socialism, but social democracy. Sanders has been much less cautious and more radical than Clinton in his policy proposals, and this may in the end be his undoing in the race for the Democrat nomination. Even if he did become president, without a Democrat majority in one or both Houses of Congress, he would be prevented from bringing his progressive vision to fruition, just like Obama. So for all his popularity and the movement he has inspired, it may well come to nothing.


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