Go to ...

Political Context

The Progressive Mosaic

RSS Feed

Explaining Sanders’s “Socialism” to Kansans


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I appreciate the kind attention which The Wichita Eagle recently paid to us local Democrats, progressive liberals, Christian socialists, and various others who are working to promote Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president. We’re doing it for many different reasons: perhaps because we believe that Sanders would make an excellent president, and want him to win; perhaps because we believe that his focus on economic inequality is something our country’s political culture desperately needs, and feel that supporting his efforts is a smart way to bring attention to that issue; perhaps because we believe that America’s long dominant two-party arrangement desperately needs to be blown up from within, and that the nomination of an avowed democratic socialist by a major party just might do it; perhaps all of the above. Anyway, we’re a merry little band of Kansans, and we’re happy for the publicity.

We’re not operating under any political delusions, I think. We know that Bernie’s effort to win the nomination is a real long-shot, and that even if he does, he definitely won’t win Kansas’s electoral college votes. Registered Republicans and self-identified conservatives outnumber both Democrats and liberals by more than two to one in this state, and Sanders, bless his heart, surely won’t be the one guy who could change those nearly century-old trends. All we hope for is little comprehension and respect; large numbers of actual votes, frankly, would just be an unexpected bonus.

To that end, though I realize the odds of it changing anyone’s mind are quite small, allow me to comment briefly on the statement of Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, quoted in the above article. Stating with some glee that he’d love to see the national Democratic party be led by Sanders into the 2016 elections, he commented about how easy it would be to craft a message against him: “People in Kansas are hard-working–they don’t want somebody like Bernie Sanders coming in here raising taxes to give millions of people free stuff.”

Nothing surprising there. It’s just a variation on the same Tea Party accusation that has been hurled at the “socialist” Obama for close to seven years now: that the ultimate goal of the political left is to tax hard-working Americans into oblivion while giving all sorts of other people free goodies. Is this kind of claim any more accurate now that we’re talking about a politician who actually associates himself, by name, with “socialism”? Not really. But it does give us the opportunity to do a little instruction.

First of all, anyone who is at all curious about Bernie Sanders really ought to read the speech he gave this week at Liberty University, one of the main homes of politically conservative evangelical Protestanism in America. Besides rather bravely starting out with all the social issues that a progressive liberal like himself obvious disagrees with conservative audience about; besides quoting scripture and Pope Francis to the effect that Biblical justice is incompatible with gross economic inequality and suffering; besides all that–just what, exactly, did he talk about that would involve spending tax money on goodies? Well, guaranteeing access to health care as a right, for one. Also, requiring paid family and medical leave for and job protection to all parents, jobs programs for young people, wage supports for established workers, and a few other things. Granted, there’s a lot more that Bernie has talked about elsewhere which didn’t make it into the speech–investing in infrastructure, reducing the cost of college, etc. Still, that is the “free stuff” that he wants to spend tax money on. Seems like the sort of thing that might actually help many hard-working people (who sometimes get sick, who sometimes have little children that need a parent at home to raise them, and so forth) do their jobs even better, but perhaps that’s just me.

(Incidentally, The Wall Street Journal recently made a splash claiming that Sanders’s proposals would cost an outrageous $18 trillion. But that’s mostly a meaningless scare number, since 1) the amount is spread out over ten years, during which time America’s total GDP will be $228 trillion, and 2) most of that $18 trillion is attributed to a hypothetical single-payer health care system, like the one they have developed and refined in Canada and many other countries, as a replacement to our current health care spending practices, which even with the Affordable Care Act are likely to amount to $42 trillion over the next ten years anyway. So depending on how you cut the pie, given the the reality in America today–as opposed to the originalist fantasy of many fiscal conservatives–you’re quite possibly talking about Sanders’s plan actually saving America money…and that doesn’t even consider the likelihood that a President Sanders would manage to avoid spending $2 trillion on a basically unnecessary war in Iraq as well.)

Second, look at what I just wrote about above in regards to Sanders’s proposals: taxing and spending. Obviously, lots of folks have an instinctive dislike to that kind of public transaction; it’s a deep part of America’s history and political culture. But taxing and spending assumes an economy in which individuals and corporations–the ones that are being taxed–are accumulating wealth. In other words, I’m assuming an economy of private market transactions which self-interested businesses and individuals may obtain profits from–also known, in the usual parlance, as a capitalist economy.

Does that mean Sanders isn’t actually a socialist? The truth is, like “Christian” or “conservative,” “socialism” has a great many meanings. At its root, it simply refers to an economic arrangement where wealth is held and shared collectively, as a public resource. Thus, America’s public school system, our interstate highway system–the parts that aren’t toll roads, anyway–and pretty much the entire Veteran’s Administration (with its hospitals, doctors, and innumerable guarantees) are all at least somewhat socialist. The scientific and often state-based socialist arguments of Karl Marx have been massively influential around the world over the past century and a half, obviously–but democratic socialism is a different animal. It’s aim is not to force (or wait patiently for) a revolutionary overthrow of capital, but to democratically move select resources for capital accumulation away from individual owners and into the hands of society. That doesn’t mean the end of markets, in other words; it means their socialization. This is something we’re used to occasionally doing for veterans or artists or the elderly or small children–Sanders is talking about doing it for the sick and the poor, for outsourced blue-collar workers and debt-ridden college students, as well.

If someone wanted to be strictly ideological in assessing Bernie Sanders, his democratic socialist credentials are questionable–because, as anyone who looks at his actual proposals can tell, he really isn’t talking about a great deal of economic socialization, with the exception of the areas of college education and health care. Rather, he’s talking like a Scandinavian social democrat–or like a good old-fashioned Christian populist, of the sort Kansas used to produce more of than any other state. I realize that throwing out all that philosophical and political context is unlikely to move anyone’s opinions of the man or his agenda one way or another, but this is too good of an opportunity to miss out on–the Sanders campaign, if nothing else, may help people get clear on what, exactly, they are accusing other people of.

The popular conservative, libertarian, and constitutionalist rhetoric here in Kansas has always associated any kind of government taxation and spending, for whatever reason, with “socialism,” with the assumption that anything with that label can only mean robbing hard-working individuals of their due rewards and giving them, in turn, to lazy folks to don’t deserve them. But this is simply wrong, for two reasons. First, because “socialism” isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul; it’s a demand for economic justice that obliges us to ask just what sources of wealth we want to be risked, won, or lost on an unregulated market, and what sources of wealth (the education of our children, the care for our elderly) we do not. And second, because there are as many different types of socialists as there are capitalists. To be sure, there have been plenty of socialists throughout history whose goals have been politically tyrannical, and thus were much worth opposing. Sanders, in the judgment of myself and many other Kansans, isn’t like that at all. He is, rather, the kind of socialist whose ideas are worth fighting for. And thus, to be able to actually do so, is, for some of us, a real political delight. You ought to join us–it’s fun.

Tags: , , ,

About Russell Arben Fox

Russell is a resident of Wichita, KS, an associate professor of political science at Friends University, a liberal communitarian and a Christian socialist, and a person who has long had, and who continue to have, a loving, occasionally oppositional, and all-around complicated relationship with one of the founders of this fine website.