Can You Trust a Socialist to be President?
We know that one of our current Presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, describes himself as a socialist. Add that he wants to be the Democratic candidate, given that he is not even a member of the Democratic Party. Bernie is an independent.
Remember the Red Scare (1947-57). Senator Joseph McCarthy was intent on locking up every left-leaning American citizen. It was enough that they once belonged to a Socialist or Communist Party, or made some negative statements about the U.S. government or society.
If Bernie was a socialist in his youth, this can be forgiven. In fact, many Americans are a socialist in their youth. They worry about poverty, excessive wealth, and poor educational and medical care. But Bernie is 73 years old!
Fortunately we are not in a period of Red Scare. If our history memory is deeper, we would remember a period before the Second World War when Socialists were politically active. Eugene Debs, their longtime Socialist leader, won 6 percent of the popular Presidential vote in 1912. Later in 1928, 1932, and 1936, the Socialist Norman Thomas ran for President but received even less than Debs had received in 1912. Neither of these men ever struck the public as persons who would plan to take over industry and run a ruthless Stalin-like Soviet government. Communism was much different than Socialism. In fact, many socialists were more concerned about the Communist party than the Democratic or Republican Party.
Have any of the ideas of Socialists come to America? Absolutely! Socialists in the early 1900s led the movements for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws and the progressive income tax. They also pressed for “old age pensions” but it took twenty years before President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to enact Social Security. Much of the other New Deal legislation — the minimum wage, workers’ rights to form unions, and public works programs to create jobs for the unemployed — was first espoused by American socialists. Socialists also pushed for a universal health insurance plan which ultimately led to Medicare and Medicaid and Obamacare today. One article lists over 75 “socialist” programs that our government sponsors, including farm and business subsidies, museums and zoos, court systems, public parks, the Hoover Dam, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, public street lighting, public landfills, the G-I Bill, Disability insurance and unemployment insurance.[i]
Given that Socialists have been early in advancing many of the programs that most Americans now value, why should Americans be concerned about further ideas from people like Bernie Sanders. Bernie doesn’t look like he would turn democratic America into a tyrannical Stalin-like state. Bernie looks more like everyone’s favorite grandfather. He gives us the idea that our country isn’t perfect. He favor a few legislative actions – raise the minimum wage, place a higher tax on the superrich, provide a path for illegal Americans to become good citizens, end gerrymandering of Congressional districts, reinstall the Glass-Steagall Act for more responsible banking, pass gun safety laws, lower the cost of college education, stop imprisoning so many people, start improving our schools and health system, don’t trade out our factories to other countries. There is nothing that radical about Bernie’s political positions. He doesn’t want the government to run America’s businesses. He respects free enterprise and he respects regulations that insure that business moves aren’t harmful. The government must simply make sure that companies cover their costs, both internal and external, and that their products won’t harm users.
But many businesses think otherwise. Most CEOs want minimum government and minimum regulation. They are dead set against Socialism. They see that Bernie’s policies will make it harder to get a good profit return on the invested capital. Businesses will have less incentives to invest. Fewer factories will be built. Fewer jobs will be created. To conservatives, Bernie’s policies will mean slower economic growth, and weaker business muscle against our global competitors.
How do Democrats feel about Bernie? Historically the great majority of Democrats have favored Capitalism over Socialism. Democrats, like Republicans, bought into the American Dream that every hard worker would join the middle class and a few with great luck or skill will even become rich or superrich. That was Capitalism’s mythology. Today, many Democrats have seen the economy fail to deliver living wages and equal pay for men and women. Many Democrats have given up on “trickle down” theory. Most workers have not seen any increase in their real income since1980. Meanwhile more of the wealth has been going to the top 1%. Members of the Middle class don’t think that their children will be able to live as well as they have lived. A May 15, 2015 poll of Democrats, carried out by YouGov, showed that Democrats were evenly split between preferring Capitalism vs. Socialism. A month later, in response to the same question, Democrats now slightly favored Socialism to Capitalism.[ii] Democrats are becoming aware that some of the countries with the happiest people live in countries with Democratic Socialism as the dominant economic model.
There is another factor bothering many Americans about free market. Capitalism. The U.S. is still a largely Christian country. Would Jesus choose to be a Capitalist or Socialist? If caring for others is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, then Jesus would have been a Socialist. How are super-wealthy conservatives able to reconcile their Christianity with their opposition to Socialism?
Our democratic system is based on the principle that “all men are created equal.” This came earlier from the French Revolution that was fought for “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” This is essentially Socialist thinking.
Now back to our opening question: “Can You Trust a Socialist to be President?” Yes, in principle, in that good ideas will be proposed that would improve the welfare of many. No, in practice. The real problem is that a Socialist President would be sabotaged and blocked on every proposal by entrenched conservatives. The political gridlock of today would be further intensified. We live with each political party seeing the other as potentially destroying the country. The Republicans see the Democrats as bankrupting the country by giving away free goods and services with a spectacularly rising deficit and national debt. The Democrats see the Republicans as wanting to reduce Social Security and Medicare and taxes and national debt, no matter how many Americans will suffer.
There is a better chance that Hillary Clinton, as the first woman President, would be able to work with conservatives better than Bernie. Hillary is more of a politician than Bernie, willing to give as well as take.
Bernie is too tied to Socialism. Hillary is a Capitalist. The good news is that Hillary is a “Capitalist with a Heart.”
[i] Zaid Jilani and AlterNet, “Poll: More Democrats Now Favor Socialism than Capitalism,” October 24, 2015.
[ii] “75 Ways Socialism Has Improved America,” Daily KOS, March 29, 2012, p. 1