Bernie Sanders Is A Socialist And That's Not As Crazy As It Sounds

04/30/2015 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2015
  • Jonathan Cohn Senior National Correspondent, The Huffington Post

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who calls himself a socialist, is running for president.

Don’t be afraid.

Sanders announced his candidacy on Thursday, via email to his supporters. He will seek the Democratic nomination, even though he won his Senate seat as an independent. That means he will be challenging Hillary Clinton and that also means he is unlikely to win. She has more money and name recognition. She’s extremely popular with the party’s voters. She’s sufficiently liberal on enough issues to satisfy many of the activists who would seem to be Sanders’ natural base of support.

Anything can happen in politics. But the last time an obscure lefty from Vermont ran for president, he didn’t win a single primary or caucus outside of his home state and the District of Columbia. Sanders’ campaign is likely to produce a similar result.

Like Howard Dean and some other upstarts from electoral history, however, Sanders could influence the race -- by making arguments that Clinton will have to address and, in the process, pulling the debate and ultimately Clinton’s platform to the ideological left.

This is an outcome that many Republicans seem to relish, given Sanders’ unabashed embrace of the “s” word. “Bernard Sanders is avowed Socialist,” John Cornyn, the senior Republican senator from Texas, chortled on Twitter. “52 percent of Democrats are ok with that.”

The figure is a reference to a 2014 survey in which about half of the respondents identifying as Democrats said they approved of socialism as an economic system. (Roughly the same proportion of Democrats approved of capitalism.) You can understand why that result would make Republicans like Cornyn feel smug. The label socialist isn't as toxic as it was a generation ago, but the concept remains decidedly less popular among the population as a whole. Socialism, as commonly understood by Americans, means widespread government ownership of business. A candidate or a party seemingly calling for that would alienate most of the public -- even in a lefty, earthy-crunchy state like Vermont.

But that’s not the agenda Sanders has actually been promoting. Sanders doesn’t shrink from the label socialist, Andrew Prokop pointed out in a profile for Vox last year, but he generally identifies himself as a democratic socialist. The distinction matters.

Democratic socialism, as generally conceived in the U.S., is a milder, more aspirational form of the ideology. Democratic socialists might not recoil at the thought of government running large industries, but they don’t actively pursue that goal. Instead, they focus on decidedly less radical objectives -- like making the welfare state more generous, giving workers more power, limiting the influence of money on politics and policing the practices of business more closely.

You can see that agenda in the initiatives Sanders has proposed and the causes he has championed. He’s a longtime supporter of universal health care in what some would say is its purest form: A single-payer system, in which the government provides insurance directly rather than subsidizing private insurers. He’s called for making taxpayer-funded child care available to all parents, right up through kindergarten. He supports breaking up the big banks and imposing a carbon tax to slow climate change. He opposes trade deals, including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, that lack what he considers adequate protection for labor. And he supports the public financing of campaigns for federal office.

Some of these ideas are more popular than others. How you feel about them will depend, inevitably, on your own ideological predispositions and, to some extent, how you interpret available evidence on their effectiveness. But none of these ideas is loopy. Most Western democracies have some of these policies, while some Western democracies have all of them. A few have produced such strikingly positive results -- variations on single-payer work very well in France and Taiwan, for example -- that it’s hard to understand why they don’t get more serious hearings in the U.S.

(Actually, the U.S. does have a form of single-payer health insurance. It's for the elderly, it's called Medicare, and it's incredibly popular -- which is one more reason many people think it should be available to everybody.)

But Sanders understands the political constraints of American politics -- the fractured constitutional structure, the influence of money, the disproportionate power of rural, more conservative states. Even as he has tried to tear down those obstacles, he’s also been willing to compromise. He voted for (and continues to defend) the Affordable Care Act, even though it's a weak imitation of the single-payer system he’d prefer.

Sanders also has a bipartisan streak. It was only a few months ago that he was working closely with John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator and former GOP presidential nominee, on a bill to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs health system to allow veterans to receive care through private, rather than government-managed, providers.

One reason for Sanders' outreach is ideological: Socialist label notwithstanding, he isn’t actually that far to the left. A study by VoteView, determined that Sanders is actually less liberal than many Republican senators are conservative.

Another reason is temperamental. He’s simply not the destructive type -- and that’s likely to define his presidential campaign. He has said he likes and respects Clinton. He talks about creating a grassroots movement, but one suspects his endgame is to leverage whatever power he can muster into concessions on policy from a prospective Clinton presidency.

And that might not be so hard. Clinton is a mainstream liberal, and these days mainstream liberals tend to want the same things that Sanders does -- a stronger welfare state, more regulation of business, higher wages for the lower and middle classes, action on climate change. The question is how aggressively and enthusiastically she promotes these causes, via rhetoric and actual policy proposals. Sanders could push her in ways that are unlikely to hurt and might very well help -- by encouraging her to confront Wall Street more forcefully, for example, or getting her to endorse government negotiation of prices with drug companies.

You won’t hear Clinton calling herself a socialist, for sure. But as Sanders’ own career shows, the label doesn’t mean a whole lot anyway.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Howard Dean did not win any primaries in 2004. In fact, he came in first in the Democratic contests in Vermont and the District of Columbia.

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