Sanders the Squishy Socialist Should Ax Bogus Label

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Bernie’s Agenda: ’Democratic-Capitalism,’ Not Old World ‘Socialism’

Bernie Sanders, by any classic measure, is a lousy socialist who should jettison this inflammatory, injurious misnomer. Does embracing “socialism” — an open-ended, domestic land mine — not cloud his brilliant career, his surging national esteem and jaw-dropping campaign success? If winning the nomination is the prize, then why deliver a flaming torch to every scornful interviewer, partisan Republican, or Hillary defender so they can light up the night sky with painful distortions?

Does Sanders talk up nationalizing major industries? Top-down, centralized economic control? Widespread price controls, suspicion of private property, even sanctified Five Year Plans? That’s what vast numbers of voters, let alone political scientists, think of as “socialism.” For this pragmatic progressive, time the Sanders’ team reconsiders a self-induced obstacle between him and a stunning primary upset that would rock our political foundations.

Plus, igniting my model for a progressive era that must last a generation or more to equal the first Progressive Era.  Curiously, when activist Burlington mayor, Sanders didn’t push “socializing” city utilities, though he achieved “community trust housing” and fought intrusive cable price hikes and bad lakefront development. Not exactly splashy “democratic socialism.” I posit more traction if he embraced his first allegiance, the Liberty Union Party.

Let’s face it: anything that reeks of “socialism” communes on these shores of denial and ignorance with communism, inviting knee-jerk tar and feathering by jerks. And most significantly, without upsides that expand popularity. How many socialist voters — Scandinavian or otherwise, per Bernie’s praise — will decide our dozen key battleground states? What overt “socialist” candidate has wowed Democratic voters since noble figures, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, made news long, long ago? Nationally, in ’12, under 5000 voted “socialist.”

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Socialism, the Shrinking US Cult

Frankly, rightwing extremism sells better in polling: look how well the Trumpster does with proto-fascist rants. Would Trumpery not wither if he depicted his immigration wall folly as a perpetual, socialist-monopoly boondoggle, marrying private industries and top-down federalism to serve Tea Party fantasies? Is not his entire anti-immigrant package a bizarre way to empower the state to “socialize” primitive values,  keeping the US as white as long as possible? Makes the federalized “socialism” of public schooling or Medicare look tame. I make a point here solely about nomenclature as this is certainly not Sanders’, nor my own, positive view of humane European socialism.

I appreciate the senator’s loyalty to this mavericky term that fuels fierceness against the corporate billionaire class, blindly equating socialism with infamy. I get the logic for a breakthrough candidate to redeem a tarnished phrase to widen his appeal, talking up when government works. Good candidates define themselves first and clearly, before foes with millions slice and dice “who he really is.” Yet, why offer up, as if deeply revealing, a negative word that misrepresents Sanders’ own potent agenda?

On point, where’s the core socialism behind Sanders’ insistence that bloated billionaires pay their fair share and not dictate government elections? Eisenhower and others did that by refusing to change the top tax of 90%, warning about the military-industrial complex, and enacting campaign funding limits. Does Bernie’s socialism ever condemn the goal of making money — or instead criticize how rigged courts and Congress produce gaping loopholes that make dangerous billionaire concentrations inevitable? There’s nothing socialistic about dressing down the self-absorbed rich who think they should run everything. Jefferson, then progressives a century later, warned fiercely about the evils of ruthless corporatism.

Has Sanders ever condemned the sanctity of private property or pushed for Washington to commandeer major industries? Not that I’ve heard. Demanding universal health care, with strictly regulated prices, closes down no corporate health providers—- only humanizes them to act like profitable public utilities? How many corporate giants go bankrupt serving Medicare?

What, No President Ideology?

What Sanders underestimates is how greatly Yanks hate ideology, especially imported systems from the repellent, tainted Old World. Only the horror of communism outpoints socialism in this hall of shame — and for Republicans a “slam-dunk” cudgel against Democrats, with Obama laughably slammed for “socialism” that pays off slavish minorities. Winning candidates shy away from rigid, systemic abstractions that offend one group without predictable offsets, across history and political parties.  Sure, visions, triumphs and empty pledges work, but not rigid fixations or ideological rectitude.

Sanders after all is anything but an ideologue, socialist or otherwise — and less of a “democratic socialist” than a “democratic capitalist.” Like FDR, Sanders’ agenda will redeem, even rationalize tarnished capitalism.  Does he preach the end of capitalism, even so far drastic systemic changes? Does Sanders impugn GDP except when producing too much pollution from fossil fuels, thus HIS top environmental solutions? Does Sanders not still boast of the slice of the job-producing military-industrial complex he escorted to Vermont?

Even his challenge to dubious WS bailouts, shielding “too big to fail” banks, keeps Sanders in the capitalistic camp, reinforced by his industry-serving jobs programs, infrastructure projects, and sensible trade notions. No president is electable by assailing the present economic system, awarded nearly religious reverence. Certainly, let’s reinstate Glass-Steagall, but if that’s ardent socialism, I’ll eat my progressive hat.  Frankly, I can’t find one Sanders proposal that smacks of classic socialism. Take free college education: no threat to capitalism, even profit-driven schools; it’s mainly about who pays the tab, not that Washington dictate policy for higher education.

Sanders Echoes FDR, not Debs

Not only is Sanders not much of a socialist but, like FDR, embraces an agenda that lifts the capital-depleted middle-class and raises wages to boost consumer spending, likely to save today’s worst-case version of crony capitalism from itself. In fact, to find the best examples of bad, recent “corporate” socialism, look no further than Dubya’s corrupt TARP bank bailouts or Obama’s loans that saved General Motors.

Years ago in Vermont Sanders got re-elected by calling himself a “democratic-socialist.” Bully for old times. But craven sound bites and catch phrases now dominate the national political stage. I question whether “socialism,” with its historic, negative connotations, is not a hard-to-defend, risky ploy, especially when winning over less informed and unaligned moderates in ley battleground states.

Finally, I dread what the vast, overheated, irrational right-wing conspiracy will do with a curse second in smear value to communism. Since Birtherism lasted far, far more than the fifteen minutes of infamy it deserved . . . and if the right can turn the nothing-burger of Benghazi into months of harangue . . . if anti-immigration bigotry tops early GOP polling, just imagine and tremble. On a lighter note, Sanders might take a leaf from Karl Rove: if not “democratic-capitalist,” how about “compassionate, American-born socialism”? Okay, why not “compassionate capitalism?” That phrase, alas, has a major practical downside: skeptical Sanders’ millions are more likely to fall down laughing, in stitches, so long they miss getting to the voting booth.

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Robert S. Becker
For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.

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