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Will The Real Bernie Sanders And Hillary Clinton Please Stand Up?

Rich Barlow debunks the two most commonly held misconceptions about the Democratic front-runners once and for all. In this photo, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton laugh during the CNN Democratic presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/ AP)
Rich Barlow debunks the two most commonly held misconceptions about the Democratic front-runners once and for all. In this photo, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton laugh during the CNN Democratic presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/ AP)
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Socialism. Muh-ha-ha-ha. 

For many older readers, “socialist president” is more a nightmarish Halloween costume than a political development devoutly to be wished. The idea of a socialist commander-in-chief turns off a significant number of likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire’s kickoff presidential primary, according to WBUR’s latest poll. But digging deeper, the poll suggested that “Democratic socialist” was acceptable to a large swath of people.

The semantics matter. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermonter who has variously described himself as a socialist and democratic socialist, hopes to beat frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the crucial February primary, to be held next door to his home state. In follow-up interviews, voters told WBUR that “socialist” conjured the failed economies-cum-despotism of the old Soviet bloc. “Democratic socialist,” however, evokes the free and prosperous Scandinavian countries, which Sanders points to as the template for reforming the U.S. economy.

Sanders, haphazard rhetoric aside, is no socialist. For that matter, Clinton ... harbors conservative instincts that would serve her well as president.

Let's clear up two misconceptions on both the right and the left: Sanders, haphazard rhetoric aside, is no socialist. For that matter, Clinton, while accurate in her self-portrayal as a progressive, harbors conservative instincts that would serve her well as president.

If Sanders is an honest-to-God socialist, why isn’t George Will hiding under his bed? The conservative Will is no fan of the Vermonter’s politics, yet he observes that by the classic definition of socialism — public or government ownership of the means of production and distribution — Sanders’s brand is a “charade.”

“If he is a ‘socialist,’ who isn’t?” Wills scoffs. A look at the candidate’s supposed utopia shows that Scandinavia isn’t classically socialist either. Rather, the Nordic nations embody the progressive capitalist state on steroids — stiff business regulation, generous public assistance and progressive taxes to redistribute wealth.

Sanders’s college-age fans are too young to remember the right turn -- tax cuts, privatization and spending restraint — Scandinavia took in the 1990s. Today, 30 percent of its labor force works for the public sector. That’s almost twice our rate. But countries with almost two-thirds of their workers in private enterprise are hardly what Karl Marx had in mind. The Scandinavian icing is heavy with government, but it sits atop a solidly capitalist cake.

Tea Party conservatives will grumble, so what? They oppose such government bureaucracy and safety net programs as economy killers. Unfortunately for them, Scandinavia does quite nicely, thank you, with even that capitalist tool Forbes ranking Denmark the globe’s best country for business.

Nor is Sanders’s campaign platform the radical disaster many conservatives fear. Yes, he’s for a single-payer health care system. But the robust public works he endorses are something this country has pursued since its infancy, have the support of the economist who advised Ronald Reagan, and would benefit those wicked capitalists, who need good roads, ports and rails to reach markets. Sanders’s plan for free public universities builds on the tradition of Lincoln, who created public higher education to plug big holes in America’s private system, which then educated only the richest sliver of the population.

If Sanders and Scandinavians make pretty wan socialists, Clinton described herself, fairly, during the Democrats’ recent debate as “a progressive who likes to get things done.” To anyone paying attention, she had previewed that pragmatism last summer during another debate of sorts. Confronted by a Black Lives Matter activist who demanded what she would do as president to change “hearts and minds,” Clinton rejected his premise: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” That may sound bloodless and uninspiring, but from civil and gay rights to gun control and abortion, history shows she’s right: Lawmakers change laws; only time and experience change hearts, if at all (four-decades plus of legalized abortion haven’t softened that angry debate).

Clinton offered more of the same at the official candidates’ debate, saying she shares Sanders’s goal of rolling back economic inequality but favors means more acceptable to America’s cultural heritage. “We are not Denmark,” she said. “I love Denmark. We are the United States of America, and it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so it doesn’t run amok.”

At the Democratic debate over capitalism, capitalism won.

This work-within-the-system philosophy derives from the “first conservative,” Edmund Burke, with his aversion to revolutionary utopias and support for measured change that respects tradition. It also has been the route to our country’s most enduring political reforms, from Lincoln’s to the two Roosevelts'.

When Clinton said that capitalism fosters small business and needs reform, not overthrowing, she even got an amen from — Sanders. “I think everybody is in agreement that we are a great entrepreneurial nation,” he said. “We have got to encourage that. Of course, we have to support small and medium-sized businesses … the backbone of our economy.”

Republican candidates hooted over this discussion. “Democrats are debating whether capitalism is a good thing. Naturally,” snarked Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. He should try de-caffeinated coffee and relax. At the Democratic debate over capitalism, capitalism won.

Related:

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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