The avowed socialist Bernie Sanders is drawing big crowds in his improbable Democratic presidential bid, alarming party regulars who worry he’ll drag Hillary Clinton off center, making her less attractive in the general election. I’m worried for a different reason: I fear that every policy goal Sanders espouses will be tagged as Marxist dicta from the radical fringe, further marginalizing some perfectly reasonable progressive ideas.
I fear that every policy goal Sanders espouses will be tagged as Marxist dicta from the radical fringe, further marginalizing some perfectly reasonable progressive ideas.
Already the Republican presidential pack have tried to paint the whole Democratic field with the same scarlet brush. “Give Bernie Sanders credit — at least he's honest enough to call himself a socialist,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said earlier this month. “Hillary Clinton, President Obama — they're no better. This shows you how radical the Democratic Party is.” In July, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told CNN, “I’m enjoying watching Hillary Clinton explain to the voters how she is just as much of a socialist as Bernie Sanders.” The Fox News TV show "The Five" just aired a scary segment on “Sanders' Socialist Agenda” in which panelists pretzeled themselves into issuing dark threats about Sanders’ extremism while saying he is no different than the man American voters elected twice. “You want a socialist, you want a leftist?” asked co-host Eric Bolling, “You’ve got one in office right now.”
The association isn’t helpful. Most Americans, just a generation removed from the Cold War, recoil from the socialist label. A June Gallup poll found voters less likely to vote for a socialist who was “otherwise qualified to be president” than they were any other racial, religious, gender or ideological category. Only 47 percent said they’d be willing to vote for a socialist, while 74 percent said they’d be fine with an otherwise qualified gay or lesbian president, for example. Even the usually reviled atheists fared better (58 percent said they could accept an atheist as president). To call President Obama’s Affordable Care Act “socialized medicine” is to throw out the basest kind of slur, even worse than calling it “Obamacare.”
And yet, most of what Sanders touts on the campaign trail was just boiler-plate Democratic party doctrine not long ago. Indeed, the Sanders phenomenon is a measure of how far the country has drifted to the right over the past few decades. Sure, Sanders has a portrait of Eugene Debs on his office wall, and when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he created a sister-city relationship with Managua, Nicaragua. But let’s take a look at his actual policy proposals:
Sanders supports a government-run national health insurance program, an idea first proposed by that notorious Bolshevik, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1912. Fellow traveler Harry Truman followed with his own universal health care proposal in 1945. And of course, Sen. Ted Kennedy was pushing for a “Medicare for all”-type plan until his death in 2009.
Sanders wants to raise the top marginal tax rate to more than 50 percent, at least 10 points higher than Obama proposed when he first ran for president in 2007. But the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, throughout the 1950s. John F. Kennedy slashed that to 65 percent, still 25 points higher than it is today.
Sanders wants universal daycare and family leave. In 1971, the U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have created a national network of federally funded subsidized child care centers. President Nixon vetoed the bill, but not before 24 Senate Republicans voted for “socialized childcare” — something inconceivable today.
Indeed, the Sanders phenomenon is a measure of how far the country has drifted to the right over the past few decades.
Meanwhile, paid family leave is standard policy at American corporations such as Google, Apple and Netflix, which offer new mothers up to 22 months of paid time off. I guess we’re just a step away from nationalizing the Internet.
Finally, Sanders has called for an end to homelessness, something president George W. Bush also endorsed when he appointed Philip Mangano as his homelessness czar in 2002. Mangano, meanwhile, got his inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi and the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, which wrote in 1988 that “Shelters cannot substitute for real housing for low-income families.” Who’s a godless communist now?
The point is that social policies that protect families, care for the needy and fairly share the nation’s wealth are not radical descents into Maoism. They are just rational, humane ideas that politicians of all ideological stripes should be able to embrace. And, once upon a time, they did.
Renée Loth covers news, politics and architecture for Cognoscenti. Her column appears regularly.