11/25/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

As Goes Vermont, So Goes The Country?

Recent buzz over Bernie Sanders' candidacy for president has people talking, not just about Sanders and his home state of Vermont, but about something much larger: the possibility of a socialist occupying the White House.

This is a crucial development. As the longest serving independent in congressional history, a Sanders run could serve as a litmus test for breaking open our two-party political system. More fundamentally, it could become a referendum on American capitalism itself.

Bernie Sanders is the only socialist in the Senate. Not since Eugene Debs ran from a prison cell in Atlanta in the 1920s has an avowed socialist vied for the presidency. Not surprising. By 1950, nearly half of the world's population lived under governments influenced by Marxist ideas, but in the United States, "socialism" remained a dirty word. Perhaps for good reason. Classical socialist models have typically involved state ownership of industry and the means of production, but also, authoritarian consolidations of state power.

Really existing socialism has since evolved, however. In many socialist and quasi-socialist countries, it's become more rooted in the needs of communities, more amenable to forms of property ownership, and more focused on social welfare. In European countries like Denmark and Finland, for example, democratic socialist governments position institutions like health care, education, workforce development and social security as part of an integrated social matrix. Safety nets are in place so that normal events in a person's life -- like sickness, unemployment, childbirth and aging -- are not economically or socially disastrous.

In the U.S., by contrast, social institutions, like education and health care, operate as industries. Here, the state's primary role is to protect individuals' and corporations' freedom to succeed -- and fail -- in an unfettered market. Individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing, and only highly conditional and temporary relief is available when the bottom drops out.

In addition to welfare policy, socialist models abroad are reinventing modes of production. In Latin America, for example, functional worker-run factories and "peoples'" trade agreements are driven by ethics of community and cooperation, not profitmaking. In Spain, the Mondragon Corporation -- the country's fourth largest employer -- uses an employee-managed system that has helped the company survive economic upheaval with shared liquidity and a flexible workforce. Since its founding in 1956, Mondragon has not laid off a single employee, and boasts highly equitable wage structures, unthinkable by U.S. standards.

Despite such developments, conservatives continue to deploy the term "socialism" pejoratively as a way to discredit policies like Obamacare and Social Security -- arguing that they're too costly, inefficient, and undemocratic. Following the partial collapse of Mediterranean economies in 2008, they brooded: "Do we want to end up like Greece?" Yet, as the U.S. battled unemployment to the tune of ten percent (a lowball figure), countries like Germany and the Nordics enjoyed low unemployment (3 to 6 percent), in part due to rigorous "social investment" policies and safety nets.

The "big government" critique also fails to acknowledge that compared to OECD countries with extensive safety nets, the U.S. ranks poorly in key measures of well-being, such as life expectancy for low income persons, infant and child mortality, child poverty, income and wealth inequality, mobility, pay parity for women, worker protections and unemployment insurance, quality of health care and education systems, pension coverage, voter turnout and several more.

Moreover, the World Economic Forum found that countries with extensive welfare systems like Switzerland, Sweden and Finland now exceed the U.S. in Global Competitiveness. Both the OECD and Hoover Institute projected a multi-trillion dollar ROI if the U.S. could reach the educational performance level of some European countries.

In other words, data suggests that European "socialism" may in fact offer more efficient, more effective, and more humane social models than what we have in the U.S.

The snail's pace of recovery and growing chasm between rich and poor has brought many Americans to consider systemic alternatives. Inspired by talk of a Sanders run, MSNBC conducted an online poll asking people if they would elect a "democratic socialist" president. Of the 958 responses, 79 said they would. While the poll lacked scientific rigor, it does suggest that 8 percent of respondents would vote for a candidate like Sanders solely on the basis of his link with socialism. These results are backed by two, more scientific, Pew Foundation studies, which found that young people are highly favorable to socialism as a potential political/social system, by large margins


Recent elections bear these findings out. In Seattle, college professor Kshama Sawant was elected to City Council on a socialist platform. Like Sanders, she has roots in unions and social movements like Occupy, and has pledged to take on big business and raise the minimum wage. Just weeks prior, Bill De Blasio won a landslide victory in New York City. De Blasio does not identify as socialist per se, but his plan to implement a millionaire's tax and rebuild the city's public institutions, clearly positioned him as the anti-Wall Street candidate.

Without jobs, basic safety nets and adequate representation in our political system, everyday Americans are not adequately equipped for real recovery. The fact that so few have enjoyed upward mobility has done surprisingly little over the last four decades to undercut the master narrative of the American dream. But blind faith in American capitalism -- as the greatest among social systems -- appears to be waning. Not just with social movements, but at the polls too.

Back in Sanders' Vermont, they're implementing our nation's first single payer health care system, and experimenting with community-based social models, involving energy, land trusts, agriculture, banks, and others. As goes Vermont, so goes the country? It's far too early to tell. Perhaps the answer lies in the words of Sanders' own inspiration, Eugene Debs: "It is better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don't want and get it." I suspect that a good number of voters will likely agree.