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The Phenomenon Bernie Sanders: Are Americans Ready to Accept Democratic Socialism? The Phenomenon Bernie Sanders: Are Americans Ready to Accept Democratic Socialism?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-10-19 10:01:56
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There is another side to the Donald Trump coin with which the media and politicians seem to be exclusively preoccupied nowadays. Admittedly politics reduced to a reality show and sordid vituperations passing for political wisdom is more entertaining for many misguided and unconcerned people, but they remain banal and meaningless experiences. It is indeed tragic that the other side of the coin, Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialist agenda has by and large been ignored and underestimated by a vast majority of the media and the politicians. Its detractors continue to repeat the mantra: a Socialist is unelectable in the US; that may be fine in Europe, in the Scandinavian countries, but not here. More often than not Democratic socialism is confused with Communism. The Pope himself has been branded a communist for mentioning the idea of distributive justice.

But those detractors ought to consider this: the infrastructure jobs program (a key element of Sanders’ platform) has presently 91% support from Democrats, 61% from independents and even 55% support from Republicans—compared to only 28% opposed. Donald Trump can only dream of being that popular among Republicans. So perhaps the attention and focus on Trump is misplaced.

Moreover, consider this too: the results of the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute in January, are astounding and yet it has so far received little attention. Ideas were solicited online through an open submission process; more than 2,600 specific proposals were submitted and then people voted on them. More than a million votes were cast; then this bottom-up process was tested out in a national poll. The following all received 70% support or more:

Allow Government to Negotiate Drug Prices (79%)
Give Students the Same Low Interest Rates as Big Banks (78%)
Universal Pre-Kindergarten (77%)
Fair Trade that Protect Workers, the Environment, and Jobs (75%)
End Tax Loopholes for Corporations that Ship Jobs Overseas (74%)
End Gerrymandering (73%)
Let Homeowners Pay Down Mortgage With 401k (72%)
Debt-Free College at All Public Universities (Message A) (71%)
Infrastructure Jobs Program — $400 Billion / Year (71%)
Require NSA to Get Warrants (71%)
Disclose Corporate Spending on Politics/Lobbying (71%)
Medicare Buy-In for All (71%)
Close Offshore Corporate Tax Loopholes (70%)
Green New Deal — Millions Of Clean-Energy Jobs (70%)
Full Employment Act (70%)
Expand Social Security Benefits (70%)

Regarding big business, 74% of Americans believe corporations have too much influence on American life and politics today), 60% of Americans—including 75% of Democrats—believe that the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and 58% of Americans support breaking up big banks like Citigroup, a key plank of Sanders’ platform and the goal of a bill that Sanders sponsored in the Senate; 73% of Americans favor tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies; 64% favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions and requiring utilities to generate more power from “clean” low-carbon sources; 80% of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members; 85% percent favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to employees who are ill.

All of the above polls and statistics are in line with Bernie Sanders’ politics and all are extremely popular, with support across the political spectrum. Only the billionaire one per centers find the mere mention of those reforms highly objectionable, for obvious reasons. So, the question arises: are Americans ready for democratic socialism? The above poll and statistics would seem to suggest that the answer is a resounding yes.

In a way, both the Trump and Sanders phenomena illustrate a basic asymmetry that runs through American politics—between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, first comprehensively described by public opinion researchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in a landmark 1967 book titled The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion. They discovered that half the population was ideologically conservative, in the sense of preferring a smaller, more limited government, while about two-thirds was operationally liberal, in the sense of wanting to spend more on specifically identified government programs.

Conservatives win by making broad, sweeping appeals, which can often have little relationship with the facts degenerating even into denial of scientific facts and detachment from reality: for example, President Obama was not born in the US, period. Liberals win by focusing on how to fix specific problems. Thus “government spending” in general is seen as a negative, but spending on most specific programs is strongly supported. The pattern is clear: The more practical the question, the more liberal the answers. This pattern is little understood across the Atlantic, but that’s how U.S. politics works.

If the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do most Americans even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Do they   know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?

Sanders is right to think that Scandinavian socialism would be popular here in the U.S., if only people knew more about it. And he’s right to make spreading that awareness a goal of his campaign. It could be argued that opening up the political process to popular ideas that just happen to be not so popular with the billionaire class, and the political system that caters so slavishly to them, is what the Sanders’ campaign is all about.

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A Symbol of Socialism

Basically the issue that Sanders is dealing with are: big business, progressive taxation, inequality and poverty, money in politics, minimum wage and workers’ rights, health care and social security, higher education, same-sex marriage. He is not simply cherry-picking a few popular ideas here and there. He’s tapping into a broadly shared set of inter-related attitudes and ideas about closely related issues, although these views and ideas are usually sidelined in most political discourse, the convergence of attitudes into a coherent policy texture is remarkably consistent.

And this gets to a primary problem with America’s political system: liberal policy views form a coherent whole, every bit as much as conservative ones do, but they are far less publicly recognized, articulated, discussed and explored—despite the fact that they are wildly popular! Part of the problem is that conservative ideology expresses an idealized sense of individual possibility, so it’s relatively easy for people to access. Liberal ideology comes from a much more reflective place, one that encompasses thinking about society as a whole, and seeing oneself as part of a larger social fabric.

The philosopher John Rawls proposed thinking in terms of a society conceived behind a “veil of ignorance”: if we had no idea where we were to fall in the scheme of things, what kind of social order would we consider fair and just? Such a framework makes perfect sense when we act as citizens, and openly invites us to act philosophically, in a way that promotes the flourishing of our whole society.

If the overwhelming majority of Americans thinks that Sweden represents a better social order than America, then it’s hardly surprising that large numbers of them also agree with Sanders on a broad range of economic issues, as both PCI and Peter Drier lay out. And it’s not surprising that they agree on broader policies related to wealth and the exercise of political power, as well as policies making life better for the middle class, and helping more people to get into it. In fact, the only thing surprising about Bernie Sanders’ popularity is that people find it surprising.  After all, the evidence has been all around us for a very long time now. What this means, in effect, is that the political system is in a state of drift, so far as the needs, interests and values of most ordinary Americans are concerned. All the supermajority issue positions that Sanders may hold are irrelevant, because the American people as a whole are irrelevant. Such is the sorry state of our democracy.

Sanders was asked recently“: Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?” This is how he answered: “Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue. In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.”

Ultimately, the question is not “Will Bernie Sanders be elected president?” That remains to be seen. The real question is, “Will the Sanders campaign change the course of American history?”

 


     
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