Politics, Moderate

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Politics

Sanders is a refugee from the 1930s

Robert J. Samuelson on

WASHINGTON -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, is a man from the 1930s. If you didn't believe that before, you certainly should believe it now. Sanders last week gave a powerful speech at George Washington University defending his identity as a "democratic socialist" and endorsing Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 promise to create an "economic bill of rights." Roosevelt, of course, died before he could make good on that commitment.

"We must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal," Sanders said. Meanwhile, he expects "massive attacks" from those who attempt to use the word "socialism as a slur." Sanders is surely right to object to this: We long ago passed the threshold of having a socialist society that reorders its spending to help those who we think deserve help.

It's true that Sanders' socialism doesn't fit the traditional definition, which is government ownership of the "means of production" and major corporations. But we do already have a vast system of "entitlements" -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and the like -- that eventually subsidizes most Americans. At any one moment, roughly half of U.S. households receive benefits, reports Danilo Trisi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Over time, the proportion rises.

We are all socialists now, as I wrote a few weeks ago. But we deny this obvious reality and stigmatize socialism as an alien phenomenon that is automatically un-American.

In a recent post on his blog, The Conversable Economist, Timothy Taylor made a similar point. "I've been coming around to the belief that most modern arguments over 'socialism' are a waste of time, because the content of the term has become so nebulous," he wrote. Many "'socialists' are really just saying that they would like to have government play a more active role in providing various benefits to workers and the poor, along with additional environmental protection."

This may explain why support for socialism is surprisingly strong. Gallup periodically asks whether Americans think socialism is a "good" or "bad" thing. Earlier this year, 43% said a good thing, 51% a bad thing, reported Taylor. In 1942, the responses were 25% a good thing and 40% a bad thing (most of the remainder had no opinion).

 

What should count are actual proposals, not the associated slogans and soundbites. Not unexpectedly, Sanders' economic vision is sweeping. "We must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights," he said in his speech. These include, in his words:

-- The right to quality health care

-- The right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society

-- The right to a good job that pays a living wage

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