Is Bernie Sanders selling socialism? Or is he just making a clear case for a government that actually works for the people? A panel discussion with Norman Solomon and Kamau Franklin, with Jacqueline Luqman as host
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Hi. I’m Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
Is Bernie Sanders selling socialism or is he just making a clearer case for a government that actually works for We the People?
Welcome to our weekly Trending Topics segment where we discuss some of the top stories of the week. And of course, we’re starting with Bernie Sanders’ impassioned speech defending his vision of democratic socialism. Our panelists today are from the San Francisco Bay Area. Norman Solomon: Norman is the national coordinator of RootsAction.org, an activist group, now with 1.2 million supporters online in the U.S. Norman was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 National Convention and is currently a coordinator of the relaunched independent Bernie Delegates Network. Welcome, Norman.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you, Jacqueline.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And from Atlanta, Georgia, we have Kamau Franklin. Kamau is an attorney, the founder of the grassroots organizing group Community Movement Builders Inc, and is a co-host of Renegate Culture, a podcast that covers news and culture in the Black community. Welcome, Kamau.
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thanks for having me.
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JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Bernie Sanders’ speech at George Washington University earlier this week was met with excitement or derision, depending on who you talk to. It seems, though, that what Sanders was really doing was not so much a defense of democratic socialism–which is how the New York Times has framed it and other media outlets–but it seems that Bernie Sanders was actually doing what he said is a strategy to provoke a fierce debate or conversation about issues that Americans need to have. Sanders said in a pre-speech interview that his speech is going to provoke a fierce debate and that he eagerly looks forward to President Trump’s Tweets. The question though, gentlemen, is what was Sanders trying to debate? Was he debating the merits of democratic socialism or was he debating something else? Kamau, what do you think?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think most likely what he was trying to do is to force the corporate media to have a conversation–or allow a conversation–about what democratic socialism means, and what that means policy-wise as opposed to either being dismissive about it or having the corporate media sort of “pooh pooh” it or talk about it as not being mainstream. I think what Bernie Sanders is trying to do is to sort of break through that fourth wall and to have some sort of historical analysis of the type of socialism that he’s talking about, and how in some ways it’s already been practiced in the United States. When he talks about being a democratic socialist in the likes of FDR and Dr. King, I think were some main points of his speech.
So I think he’s trying to make sure that people are seeing him not as a “scary red,” because the United States populace has been trained to hear the word socialist as such, but to sort of put it in a place where he thinks Americans can get what it means. Because there’s a history already through policies like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and so forth which are socialist policies.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Norman, let me ask you. Kamau brought up the issue of the historical analysis of democratic socialism that Sanders made in this speech, connecting it to FDR and the policies of FDR and the kind of economic policies that Martin Luther King Jr. was pushing. Is Sanders educating a new generation of newly engaged political people, younger people who don’t know this history, on this history? Or do you think he’s hoping to educate, as he said, and take on these issues head on with Trump and his supporters?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Really, I think Bernie Sanders is seeking to educate several generations. Because even the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was really a socialist, as he occasionally acknowledged even publicly, that’s not well-known to all generations in the United States. And in so many ways, what Bernie Sanders is doing is going up against the messaging and the silences of corporate media. I think it’s really extraordinary that as an agitator, politician, really de facto organizer, Bernie Sanders is really endeavoring quite effectively to reframe public discourse in a fundamental way.
So of course he’s trying to get elected president, but he’s also in a very, I think, historic and crucial way, helping to galvanize the disparate social progressive movements into a stronger public visibility and a way to say that the entire way that power is held in this country by corporate economic concentrated interests is illegitimate. And that’s how he is redefining, or defining publicly, what he means by being a democratic socialist, as he says; that economic power has to do fundamentally with human rights, that economic rights are human rights.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It’s interesting that you mention that Sanders is reframing or shaping this conversation. Because in a pre-speech comment, he said, “This is a debate that the American people have got to have. What are we entitled to as human beings?” That’s what Bernie Sanders said before his speech earlier this week. Kamau, let me ask you. When Sanders is framing this discussion, not about democratic socialism as much as it is about this question of what we as human beings deserve to have, does he make any inroads with Trump and his supporters? What do you think?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think there’s a possibility there. Because I think even the election of Trump is based somewhat on people feeling–again, something I allude to often is not only the racism of the voters for Trump, but also the feeling for Trump voters that the system is now set against them; that trade issues benefit wealthy elites, other nations, but somehow it doesn’t benefit them, that there is stagnation on wages. And post the great recession–even though the economy has recovered GDP-wise and job-wise–the type of jobs that people are now having to engage in, where we have the tech economy, people who are working two or three jobs, maybe even a regular job and then having to drive Uber, I think all of that has basically sort of expressed itself in a shift that people feel is happening in the economy.
And unfortunately for them, they felt like some billionaire person was going to somehow look out for their interests. So I think Bernie Sanders is saying that there is larger forces at play, and if we can get those folks away from their racism–which I’m not sure he can, but if he can–that there is serious issues to debate around healthcare, wages, education, the environment, affordable housing, retirement, and so forth that needs to be put on the table for serious discussion around which way the country will be headed.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Norman, what are your thoughts on whether Sanders can make any inroads with Trump supporters by framing this discussion as “what we deserve as human beings” as opposed to “this is why democratic socialism is a good thing?”
NORMAN SOLOMON: There are real possibilities to make more inroads with Trump voters or would-be Trump voters. But I think electorally more significant is the real possibility to mobilize turnout. Because polling shows most of the Trump people, if they’re not really repulsed by him by now–and unfortunately few have been–they’re sticking with him, whereas the real differential is turnout. Young people, People of Color, those who have been marginalized, those who are at the bottom of the power pyramid in this country, if they turn out, then Trump’s going to lose. If, as happened in 2016, those folks who are at the bottom of the power structure, if they don’t turn out, then the right wing will triumph.
And I think it’s really so notable that Bernie Sanders is naming names. He’s taking and naming corporate names. He’s talking about Disney and Walmart and Amazon. It’s quite extraordinary that he’s willing to do that, because it’s against the conventional wisdom of how you get elected in this country. I sat through, a couple of weeks ago, fourteen speeches by various Democratic presidential candidates at the California State Democratic Party Convention, and there were only two that were worth listening to, and that was Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The rest of it was just superficial blather, the usual sort of stuff. And I think that’s what we have in this mixture of the twenty-something presidential candidates on the Democratic side. In the debates coming up, the class issues are being totally ignored or blurred or rhetorically shifted around and mucked around with by all of those candidates except for Warren and Sanders.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, I’m glad you brought up the the lackluster performance of most of the Democratic field in this election cycle. Because to be fair, the response to Sanders’ speech was not just resistant from the Republicans. There were Democrats who were not too kind in response to what Bernie Sanders had to say. Former governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper said that “Democrats must say loudly and clearly that we are not socialists.” And further, the leader of the Democratic Party, the majority leader Nancy Pelosi, said about socialism in general terms back in April, “I do reject socialism as an economic system.” She said that on a 60 Minutes interview. How does Sanders, Kamau, deal with–walk this line between trying to appeal to Trump voters, overcome their racism, and also navigating the minefield of the Democratic Party and their clear pro-corporate bias?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah. It’s obvious that in the two-party system that the United States has, in order for Bernie Sanders to have a serious opportunity to be president, that he has to run on the Democratic ticket. And I think it’s also obvious that Sanders is an independent and rejects the Democratic Party except for using it as this vehicle, because this is the vehicle that allows him potentially to compete and not just be a candidate to expressing ideas but doesn’t have a hope of winning. So I think there is that delicate line. The Democratic Party is captured, has been captured. I think when those Democrats speak about rejecting socialism, they’re actually telling the truth. They’re telling the truth that just like the Republican Party, they are captured by corporate interests, they’re interested in corporate donors and corporate money, they’re interested in the same old, same old of how development is supposed to happen.
One interesting thing, as an aside, I often bring up when we talk about cities where gentrification is happening, where economic disparity is happening, and we’re not looking at national but local politics, a lot of that is happening under local Democratic regimes. So the progressive talk is something that people are moving towards in some ways because they see the shift in the population, but not enough to break with the corporations that control both parties.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Then Norman, what are your thoughts on that? Especially in light of the response from the Democrats, some of whom–Elizabeth Warren, who you mentioned earlier, actually seemed to laugh at Sanders’ defense of or his explanation of democratic socialism and his belief that it’s the only thing electorally that can overcome this growing authoritarianism and a word he used to describe American politicians, oligarchy. What are your thoughts on on the Democrats’ response to what Sanders has to say?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Bernie’s the only person. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate for president who is willing, and has been willing for years, to name the unnamable, the fact of oligarchy in this country. And his rhetorical–in a good way–rhetorical references to the history of this country, I think, have been very on point. Back to the 30s, when Social Security and unemployment compensation were on the table, condemned by many–including the corporate press of the era–as socialists, and they meant that as a bad way. I’m just old enough to remember the debate over this thing being proposed called Medicare in 1964, widely condemned by the right wing and some Democrats as socialism. They said that was a bad thing. And so, we have right now a battle between the wing of the party represented by Joe Biden, who has said that explicitly five hundred billionaires are not a problem in this world, and the Bernie Sanders progressive wing, for the most part also behind Elizabeth Warren.
And this is–if you like a dialectical battle–it’s certainly a power struggle over the future of the party and the country. And except for Warren and Sanders, as I’ve been saying, really those other candidates, while they may have some virtues around issues like climate change in a couple of instances, they pretty much represent just shuffling along on the way to Armageddon or however you want to concieve of it in terms of climate change and certainly the militarism of the society. And one thing worth mentioning is that with great improvement over 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders is calling out the military industrial complex as part of the integral corporate power that we must oppose and overcome.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, it’s certainly an interesting election cycle already, not just because there are so many candidates, at least in the Democratic primaries going up to the Democratic primary so far. And as boring as many of them are, it is interesting to see their responses from the Democrats of these ideas that crazy Bernie Sanders has that aren’t really crazy at all. They’re actually entrenched in American history. Many of us benefit from these policies that are just being honestly kind of rehashed a little bit and revamped. So it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of this campaign plays out, but we have to leave this particular conversation here. Thank you so much, Kamau Franklin and Norman Solomon, for joining me today.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thanks a lot.
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thank you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.