John Samuel Tieman: To My Fellow Socialists, And To Those We Scare
Bernie Sanders may well be nominated to be the next President of the United States. This has engendered a flurry of hair-on-fire commentaries and editorials. I would like to inject a small note of calm and caution. Therefore, these four quick points.
One. A friend refers to Sanders as an “old fashioned socialist”. My buddy is referring to the simple fact that Sanders’ ideals have been around for well over a century. The socialist Eugene Debs ran for president of the U. S. in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. The British elected their first Labour Members Of Parliament 114 years ago. It’s true. The socialism of Sanders is old fashioned. The senator is in no sense a revolutionary. Nor will anything he introduces, if he becomes president, do any more than reform. Indeed, some measures, like national health care, have been been around for the best part of a century in many countries.
Two. Folks worry about what a Sanders candidacy will do to the Democratic Party. But Sander is not a Democrat. He is an independent. Sanders is simply using the political machine that is available to him. (In this, he actually resembles Trump.) But, as far as fixing the party goes, the Democrats are on their own. In this writer’s lifetime, the Democrats have never had a stable ideology. The party has embraced everyone from Southern segregationists to the Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party, from Strom Thurmond to Hubert Humphrey. That the Democratic Party, at its core, has a vacuum instead of an ideology, this is not the problem of an independent socialist.
Three. A lot of leftists want to argue about the distinction between democratic socialism and social democracy, the two most prominent versions of moderate socialism. Indeed, some want to give Bernie Sanders a kind of purity test, insisting that he is not a socialist at all. These arguments are largely found among academics and intellectuals. There has not been much of a socialist presence in our recent political life. So, aside from an insistence upon anti-communism, there has never been much public debate about the variations within moderate socialism. Frankly, it is probably best that these debates be left until 2021.Why? Because, to the much maligned Bubba Sixpack and his best friend, the Average Voter, this distinction is either lost upon them or irrelevant. Ideas are important. But Bubba is going to want to know, first, which good idea gets his family a dental plan.
Four. If Bernie is the nominee, you are going to hear a lot of Republicans call a lot of Democrats “socialist.” Don’t worry about it. Democrats are going to be called that anyway. The younger generation especially is unlikely to respond to “socialist” as a slur. The Berlin Wall fell in 1991. There are folks, born after the Cold War, who now have their masters degrees. Perhaps it is time to stop associating all socialism with Stalinism. Perhaps it is time to start associating socialism with the kindness of a social safety net, with the generosity of free tuition, with housing for all, with child care. Perhaps it is time to start associating socialism with altruism and benevolence.
In any case, this is an election year. Sanders supporters need to focus on winning. And we do that with straight forward explanations of policy, approaches like this. “Socialists believe that every working family deserves a doctor.” “Socialists believe that, if you work, you deserve a living wage.” “Socialists believe in gender equality.” We can’t oversimplify the ideology. A short explanation must contain the whole thought. That said, subtly and nuance are only rarely electoral strategies.