I’m not sure if I’m a democratic socialist or not. Admittedly, I haven’t thought about it much because it didn’t seem practical. There was no way I could be a “serious person” in American political thought and the media if I declared myself or even flirted with being a democratic socialist.
That was before Bernie Sanders.
Whatever the outcome of his presidential nomination bid, I suspect one of the lasting impacts the Sanders campaign will have on American politics and activism is the increasing willingness of political leaders and ordinary Americans to more proudly claim bold left positions. Think of it as freeing your own Bern.
Once upon a time, progressive activists and political leaders were very much steeped in radical left politics. Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs founded several of the earliest American labor unions and ran for president five times, though he never got more than 5% of the popular vote. In 1930, then Governor of New York state Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: “There is no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation.” He went on, as president, to institute radical safety net policies in the New Deal. Social movement leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois to Dorothy Day to A. Philip Randolph openly proclaimed their allegiance with radical socialism. And arguably that context shifted American political discourse in general toward the left. Remember it was Republican President Richard Nixon who, in 1969, called for the federal government to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.
But in the wake of social progress of the 1960s and 70s, perhaps thrown on their heels by the conservative backlash and rise to political power, Democrats and liberals in general had by the 1990s largely embraced a brand of cautious centrism best illustrated by Bill Clinton, who declared: “The era of big government is over” and pledged to end “welfare as we know it.” Liberal leaders who would publicly support national single payer health care and social safety nets while calling for increasing taxes on the rich became almost as rare as the word “socialism.” And meanwhile the tradition of hard left theory and political education that had infused the likes of the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society and the early Gay Liberation Front became increasingly sparse in activist circles.
That’s now changing. And arguably, it was changing even before Sanders’ candidacy—as evident in movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, both of which re-centered radical theory within their movement building and activist work. Still, did anyone really think that not only was America ready for a self-proclaimed socialist presidential candidate but that he would do so well—not only among Democratic voters but among voters in general, among whom Sanders currently holds a lead in polling matchups with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and other possible Republican contenders?
According to polls, millennials today view socialism more favorably than capitalism, as do the majority of Democrats. Other polling suggests that more than one-third of Americans as a whole view socialism positively overall.
Somewhere in the midst of this, Sanders plays an important bridging role—simultaneously suggesting to radical left activists that they can and should try to connect their ideas in the mainstream, while showing more mainstream liberals that expressing more left positions is not self-destructive but may, in fact, create new openings for both voter enthusiasm and policy leadership that centrist liberalism had foreclosed.
I suspect it’s particularly in the latter category that Sanders’ lasting impact will be most felt, among those mainstream Democratic political figures who undoubtedly all along support marriage equality but were afraid to say so and only just recently “evolved,” or who actually think deficit spending in a down economy is a good thing but feel they have to public prostrate otherwise, or who think that a shrinking American military is very much a good thing especially given the reality of how much damage and insecurity our bloated military has caused in recent decades. No longer will liberals feel the need to tamper any radical views in “polite conversation.” And no longer will more radical progressives feel there is no place for them in mainstream political leadership.
As for me, I probably am more of a democratic socialist than I’d previously even thought to acknowledge. I also might be more in favor of ostensibly open borders and against what we know of as policing today, though I’m really not sure, but I’m sure wrestling with these questions now more than ever. That’s thanks in large part to the social movements that have pushed me on these issues. And it’s also thanks to Bernie Sanders, who has opened up new space for a popular, populist left in America.
Here’s to more and more of us freeing our own Bern.
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