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Posted by on Feb 11, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 4 comments

Bernie Sanders and “The S-Word”




Bernie Sanders needs to do a much better job defining his vision of “democratic socialism.”

That’s because, for millions of Americans, the relatively new political epithet remains confusing, even contradictory.

Indeed, even though this political stew is made considerably more appetizing with the added ingredient of “democratic,” the overriding pungency of “socialism” remains allergenic when served at most American dinner tables.  Never mind that socialism remains preposterously misunderstood and perniciously maligned, especially within the modern political lexicon.

As a candidate who has openly embraced the virtues of socialism both as a social activist and an elected official, Sanders must now step up his game.  This is his time.  He needs to sell not only himself along with his leftist ideology to a much broader segment of the American electorate than he’s managed to do so far — he must also mount an even higher pedestal as a teacher, lecturer, doctor, architect, and rabbi-preacher of sweeping political reforms and economic justice.  How he ultimately performs in this unprecedented role as a bona fide presidential candidate sure to garner lots of curiosity and attention over the next six months may come to redefine the progressive movement.  If he’s successful, it could even realign the American political establishment on levels not seen since FDR’s New Deal.  That’s the form of “revolution” most people will believe in and support.

Whatever the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, liberals already owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bernie Sanders and the legitimacy of his candidacy.  For the first time since the 1960’s, self-identifying as a “liberal” or “leftist” is no longer socially toxic, nor politically suicidal.  To the contrary — progressive ideas are credible.  They’re not only mainstream, but widely popular among several demographic groups and in certain geographic regions.  Without Sanders stumping away daily along the campaign trail, making his case to audiences who have never met a real socialist in the flesh, consistently on message, while often speaking until his voice cracks, one has to admit this would be a much different (and duller) political race were he not a candidate.  This time around, there aren’t just glaring differences between Democrats and Republicans.  There are deep and clear divides within both parties as to basic philosophies and a greater sense of priorities.

So, how does Sen. Sanders educate and ultimately sell the notion of democratic socialism to the American people during the otherwise distracting enterprise of conducting a national presidential campaign?

Actually, that’s the easy part.  Sen. Sanders should begin by hammering home the fact that, despite imperfections, the political and economic system we have in place works pretty well for most people.  America’s history is a testament to steady progress when the public and private sector are equal partners, not adversaries.  He can remind us of an exhaustive list of government programs and vital public services which already enjoy overwhelming popular support.  He can further explain that most federal and state public initiatives are a clear manifestation of the political philosophy known as democratic socialism.  He can also correctly point out that so-called free market capitalists, conservatives, and libertarians were then and are still now opposed to most forms of government intervention — both in theory and practice.

Let’s look at a concrete example — literally.  Sen. Sanders will be campaigning heavily here in Nevada over the next ten days.  Las Vegas and the 1.5 million people who reside in southern Nevada wouldn’t be living and working here if the federal government hadn’t built Boulder (Hoover) Dam during the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression, no less.  This engineering marvel transformed life in western states, provided innumerable jobs (then and now), and even became one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions.  Moreover, 80 years after it opened, the dam continues to provide electrical power throughout our region.  Consider that fact that about one-quarter of all the power used in Nevada and Arizona comes directly from the dam.  About 16 percent of all the electricity used in Los Angeles comes straight from the dam.  There’s no doubt Boulder (Hoover) Dam is the perfect shining example of democratic socialism and an extraordinary investment in public resources.  Accordingly, Sen Sanders needs to make the winning argument, “we need more dams and alternative sources of power.”

For a similar success story of what happened in the American South at about the same time, consider the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was created in 1933 under President Roosevelt.  Once again, during the toughest economic crisis in our nation’s history, federal government leadership initiated one of the greatest construction projects in history, which continues to provide clean water, electricity, flood control, and other forms of economic development to 28 million people residing in seven surrounding states.  Who among us would turn back the clock to a time when there was no TVA, other than government-bashing free-marketers?  Sen Sanders needs to make the winning argument, “we need more projects like the TVA.”

One of the least-appreciated government projects in American History is the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.  Want to know the reason why there are power lines and grids throughout the entire United States, even though it wasn’t cost effective to run electricity to many parts of the country?  That’s because during FDR’s times, the federal government took the initiative to build an electrical (and later communications) network that gave people in the countryside and small towns the luxury of affordable electricity.  Private companies had no interest in running power lines into areas with smaller populations, so people in many areas of the country were at a tremendous disadvantage to their urban counterparts.  Furthermore, these areas has no chance at economic development — things like new plants and factories — since there was no electricity.  When the federal government began to lead the way, America ultimately became a nationalized power grid.  This initiative kick-started economic development in many regions, since they had electrical power for the first time.  Sen Sanders needs to make the winning argument, “we need more projects like the REA.”

Then, there’s interstate highway system, which was arguably the most comprehensive construction project in our nation’s history.  Although sold to conservatives (who were initially opposed to the Federal Aid High Act of 1956) as vital to our national defense during the Cold War, the interstate highway system was really the quintessential example of democratic socialism in practice.  The federal government took the lead and invested massive funds into the construction of new roads and bridges.  This ultimately boosted economic development in just about every county in America — as tens of thousands of gas stations, restaurants, hotels, tourist centers, and other private businesses popped up along the highways at every exit ramp.   Sen Sanders needs to make the winning argument, “we need to improve our nation’s infrastructure — which is a benefit to us all.”

How about NASA?  Remember when we put a man on the moon?  How did that happen?  Yet again, NASA is the shining example of a government agency that works when there’s close cooperation between public and private sectors.  We not only took tremendous national pride in the Mercury and Apollo space projects, and later the Space Shuttle.  We also made new discoveries along the way that fueled progress in other arenas — from telecommunications to satellites to robotics.  Next time you hear a conservative railing against “big government,” think NASA.  Sen Sanders needs to make the winning argument, “we need to invest more in projects like NASA.”

Alas, each and every one of these extraordinary achievements stems directly from democratic socialism put into practice.  Government initially provided direction and supervision through initial planning and funding, and then entered into partnerships with private industry (which ended up reaping most of the benefits).  Hoover Dam, TVA, Rural Electrification Project, Interstate Highway System, NASA — these are but a few of many examples of how government can (and does) work for the common good.  Innumerable other public works projects, too — such as museums, libraries, zoos, piers, bridges, boardwalks, parks, arenas, and so forth — exist around America which make socialism not so much a curious option, but a daily necessity.  [See Footnote]

Oddly enough, those to rail against the so-called evils of socialism usually end by benefiting the most.  The great irony of this argument is which sectors of society usually ends up profiting.  Surprise!  Well, that’s clear — it’s the private sector!  No one can argue against the record over the past century — that the greatest beneficiaries of affordable power, transportation, and communications are those who invest during and after government projects to make a profit.  Individuals, small businesses, and giant corporations alike have enjoyed unprecedented profits over many, many years largely due to the actions of “big government.”

Society functions best for most when the government and private sector work together — which is the primary tenet of democratic socialism.  When government takes the lead on important projects and invests in our nation’s infrastructure, time and time again, this has created expansion everywhere throughout our history.  While it remains popular in some circles to extol the virtues of unbridled capitalism, the junctions of government intervention have actually instigated the eras of our greatest progress — whether it was rising up out of the Depression after the unregulated Wall Street boom of the 1920s (when virtually no such projects were launched) or the prosperity of the 1950s when tax rates on the super rich were double what they are today.  Yes, federal and state governments do have a critical role to play if we want to move forward.  To deny this is to deny our own history.

Bernie Sanders has proven to be a surprisingly effective presidential candidate with a powerful message that’s now resonating with millions of people.  He’s also in the unique opportunity to became a reformer and even a transformer.  Whether he wins the nomination (and election) or not, his economic message will resonate within this generation and the next and could lead to another phase of glory like we witnessed during FDR’s time, when the challenges seemed insurmountable.  What amazing gifts we were given from earlier times.  Those weren’t just architectural and engineering wonders.  They were models of proven political and economic theory.

Never mind “Scandinavian socialism,” as compelling as those European nations atop the world’s rankings of living standards might seem as ideal models of economic equality and social justice.  The proof and power of the argument in favor of democratic socialism has far greater success stories here, much closer to home.

Democratic socialism has proven to be an abundantly prosperous economic system when practiced within numerous countries across different continents.  No, we don’t need more capitalism and less government, as the other side argues ad nauseum.  Indeed, we need more democratic socialism.  We need the next generation to step up and seize the torch — a new phase and a more modern version — of Golden Gate Bridges and Empire State Buildings that will endure into the next century.

For this to happen, we will need more education as to what democratic socialism truly means.


FOOTNOTE:  The government programs listed above are but a small sample of “democratic socialism” in practice.  Sen.  Sanders can also cite the following — anti-trust laws against corporate and private monopolies….national parks, wilderness areas, and public beaches….Social Security….Medicare and Medicaid….guaranteed student loans and federal grants to education….unemployment and disability benefits….Welfare and the Food Stamp Program….the Environmental Protection Agency….the Occupational Safety and Health Administration….and mass transit.  

There’s more.  As proof the principles of democratic socialism make all of our lives much safer and better, Sanders can add essential government programs including — the military….intelligence agencies…..public libraries….police protection….fire protection….the U.S. Post Office….garbage collection….sewers….roads, highways, bridges and maintenance….vaccines….museums….public schools and universities….zoos….the Food and Drug Administration….the Bureau of Mines….PBS and NPR….snow removal and disaster relief….the Centers for Disease Control….streetlights….public defenders….emergency health care….the U.S. Census Bureau….border patrol and customs….the Peace Corps….the National Weather Service….and so forth and so on.




  1. First off, congrats Nolan on your new audience, I read way too much and you are one of the finest reads out there today.

    If anyone has ever seen a concert at Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado – the most beautiful concert venue in the US – THANK Democratic Socialism for that one as well.

  2. From afar, I’d describe Bernie as a New Dealer, rather than a socialist.

    In my understanding FDR saved the Democratic Party by adopting social policies demanded by socialist and communist unions and popular movements.

    But he was no socialist in his own right. And Bernie isn’t talking about major jobs programmes like FDR initiated in the 1930s to my knowledge. (Although I’m sure Stephanie Kelton would be schooling him on the idea).

    But he’s about as less evil as you’re going to get in these neoliberal times.

    Good blog by the way. My first time here.

  3. Great piece Nolan. The message that Bernie Sanders is bringing to the people of America has, thanks to writers such as yourself and social media, left across oceans and is influencing political discourse around the globe.

    If Democratic Socialism can be sold in the USA then it can be sold anywhere. I am pleased he has such a strong following among young people to whom capitalism means an entirely different thing to that of previous generations. In fact corporate capitalism has delivered much of what they said would happen under communism – without the good bits.

    America is facing a huge infrastructure crisis and Sanders has arrived at the right time to deliver the necessary news and the solutions, just as FDR did.

    Finally, the Sanders phenomenon is becoming increasingly global…the 99% will be well pleased.

  4. For a long time I thought communism was bad due to non stop republican politicians calling it evil until I looked up what it really meant, it means sharing everything, no 1 system would be perfect, but, what republicans really are trying to say without really saying it is they want all the money & all the power and most people believe what they say & that is why they control congress & have 99 % of all the $ money. man has this country went to hell.


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