Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) presented his plan to implement “democratic socialism” as the completion of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “unfinished business” in a speech on Wednesday, contrasting his proposal with what he called President Donald Trump’s “corporate socialism.”
According to Sanders, completing FDR’s New Deal means finally realizing his vision of a “second bill of rights” ― rights that guarantee economic security and a decent quality of life for every person in the United States.
“We must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights ― the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a decent job, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement and the right to live in a clean environment,” the 2020 presidential candidate said in his speech at George Washington University in the nation’s capital. “We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. And that is what I mean by democratic socialism.”
Sanders has not been a proponent of socialism in the traditional sense ― the nationalization of massive private industries ― for at least several decades now. And even as he has taken steps in the direction of encouraging greater worker ownership of the companies that employ them, his version of democratic socialism has generally resembled Nordic-style social democracy, rather than the forms of mass worker ownership advocated by many members of the Democratic Socialists of America ― an organization of which he is not a dues-paying member.
By positioning his definition of democratic socialism within the pantheon of Democratic Party politics, Sanders hopes to ease some of the anxieties that voters might harbor about the term. He has sought to tie it to popular ideas like “Medicare for All” and tuition-free public college.
But on Wednesday, he was also eager to turn the bogeyman of “socialism” ― typically a source of doubt about his general election viability ― into an electoral strength.
To that end, Sanders debuted a new line of attack against Trump, accusing him of supporting “corporate socialism” in the form of tax giveaways, bailouts and other special treatment for large companies.
“While President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism,” Sanders said. “They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires.”
“The New Deal was enormously popular politically and helped defeat far-right extremism ― for a time.”
Sanders delivered a similar speech articulating his FDR-heavy vision of democratic socialism at Georgetown University in November 2015.
But at the time of those remarks, Trump was still a year from winning the presidency.
Sanders’ speech on Wednesday seized on Trump’s election and the election of ideologically similar strongmen across the world to cast democratic socialism as an antidote to the existential threat posed by Trump’s brand of populism.
He made the case, which is already widely accepted in global left-wing circles, that the rise of the authoritarian and xenophobic far-right is inextricably linked to growing economic inequality and disenchantment with the political establishment in wealthy nations. In this narrative, right-wing demagogues like Trump find receptive audiences for anti-immigrant incitement among populations eager to find a scapegoat for stagnant or declining living standards and governments they increasingly feel powerless to change.
The answer to Trump and his global fellow travelers is to present an alternative path forward of shared economic solidarity ― just as FDR answered the threat of fascism during the Great Depression, according to Sanders.
“It is no exaggeration to state that not only did FDR’s agenda improve the lives of millions of Americans, but the New Deal was enormously popular politically and helped defeat far-right extremism ― for a time,” Sanders said. “Today America and the world are once again moving toward authoritarianism and the same right-wing forces of oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia are on the march, pushing us to make the apocalyptically wrong choice that Europe made in the last century.”
Sanders, who repeatedly referenced the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., emphasized that in attempting to complete FDR’s work he would also ensure that it included minority groups, such as African Americans, who were frequently cut out of the New Deal.
“We will also address the attacks that are being launched every day against the civil rights and civil liberties of our people,” he said. ”And let me be absolutely clear: Democratic socialism means to me requiring and achieving political and economic freedom in every community in this country.”
There are certainly valid objections that can be raised to Sanders’ analysis of 20th century history and contemporary political phenomena in global politics.
For one thing, a comparison between the current period and the Great Depression is not exact. Notwithstanding the present era’s rising income and wealth inequality, the world’s major economies have receded from the brink of the 2008 financial crisis and the economic contractions that followed.
What’s more, during the Great Depression, the threat of global communism, embodied by the Soviet Union, exerted leftward pressure on FDR and his European counterparts that has no parallel today.
But one of Sanders’ contentions is indisputable: Trump and his allies will brand any of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominees a “socialist,” just as conservatives have done at virtually every juncture in recent American history.
Sanders suggested that a benefit of embracing the label is luring Republicans into attacking Democratic-backed social programs that enjoy broad popularity with the American public.
“When Trump screams ‘socialism,’ all of his hypocrisy will not be lost on the American people,” he said. “Americans will know that he is attacking all that we take for granted from Social Security to Medicare to veterans’ health care, to roads and bridges, to public schools, to national parks, to clean water and clean air.”