Sanders Defines his Social Democracy

Doug Henwood and Paul Jay discuss the speech by Bernie Sanders explaining his vision of what social democracy means in the U.S. today

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On November 19 at George Washington University, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders laid out how he sees himself as a social democrat, what that means to him to be a socialist. In the speech he essentially laid out the New Deal concept of President Franklin Roosevelt, and says what we need now is a New Deal for today. And that was his vision of what social democracy is. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say.

BERNIE SANDERS: Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called the economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of Americans back to work, took them out of dire poverty, and restored their faith in government. And that is exactly what we have to do today. And by the way, almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea he introduced, was called socialist. I thought I would mention that just in passing. Social Security, which all of you know transformed life for senior citizens in this country, was defined by his opponents as socialist.

JAY: Now joining us from New York to help me deconstruct the speech of presidential candidate Sanders is Doug Henwood. Doug is the founder of Left Business Observer, and the soon-to-be-published book he’s the author of, My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency. Thanks very much for joining us, Doug.

DOUG HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.

JAY: So the basic theme, as I said, of the speech is Roosevelt essentially was a social democrat. He says that the programs were called socialist by the right. But that’s kind of a little different about whether they actually were socialist or not. And this is part of how I think we’re going to have to frame this discussion as we go forward, which is there’s a kind of, a part of Bernie Sanders that has to be discussed in terms of the real politics of the United States, who else is running for president, how do you assess what he says in the context of what the other choices might be. And then kind of as a thing in itself, meaning is Bernie Sanders actually a socialist, was Roosevelt actually a social democrat, and so on.

But just take up the beginning of that speech, that social democracy essentially in Bernie Sanders’ eyes is the New Deal.

HENWOOD: Well yeah, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. By American standards I suppose it is. Richard Hofstadter, there’s a story [I read] somewhere that roughly the 1930s through the end of the 1960s, the U.S. stepped out of its normal, individualistic competitive mode towards a more state-driven, collectivist one. And that’s the closest I think we’ve come to that during that period. I don’t know what, you’d call it the long 1930s or something. But you know, we had Social Security in the 1930s, Medicare in the 1960s. And that was pretty much the creation of the American welfare state, such as it is.

But it’s something to look at. It’s something we have in our own history that we can draw on and be inspired by, and not feel like we’re importing something from abroad, because Americans seem to think importing things from abroad, except maybe cheap goods from China, is suspect. But it–if we could have a new New Deal I’d take that. You know, I’m a socialist. I would like to see more. But I live in this country, I’ve lived in this country for my entire life. And I know what is and isn’t possible. And I can’t imagine the working class taking over the means of production any time soon. But it would be really nice to have the things he talks about. You know, single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, decent income support if you get sick or unemployed. These are all good things that would make it a much more civilized place, and I’m all for it.

JAY: As we go through the speech we can kind of return to the basic theme. Here’s another segment from the speech.

SANDERS: The very rich get richer. Almost everyone else gets poorer. Super PACs funded by billionaires buy elections. Koch brothers alone, and a few of their friends, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. Ordinary people, working people, young people, don’t vote. We have an economic and political crisis in this country. And the same-old, same-old politics and economics will not effectively address those crises. If we are serious about transforming our country, and I hope all of you are serious about transforming our country, if we are serious about rebuilding the American middle class, if we are serious about reinvigorating American democracy, we need to develop a political movement which once again is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.

And in my view, the billionaire class must be told loudly and clearly that they cannot have it all. That our government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires. Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of one percent today owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. One-tenth of one percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That is not the kind of America that we should accept.

JAY: So Doug, his critique of what is is eloquent, it’s very sharp, and nobody else is saying anything like this that certainly gets a mainstream audience.

HENWOOD: No, it’s not. I mean, people ask me what I think of Sanders and I say he’s better than nothing. We just don’t have this kind of talk in American presidential politics, and haven’t had it for a very, very long time. And I’m really, it’s music to my ears.

I see several problems with it. Most prominently that when we had the New Deal in the 1930s there was a domestic radical movement, there were domestic Communists, there was the Soviet Union abroad which provided some sort of competition for capitalism as a system. We don’t really have anything like that now. We don’t really have the kind of radical movement that could really scare that ruling class. And to hear Bernie use those words is music to my ears.

SANDERS: Now, I know that terms like ‘ruling class’, probably not talked about too often here at Georgetown. Not too often talked about on CBS or NBC. But that is the simple fact.

HENWOOD: But we don’t have anything that politically will scare the ruling class. Now, I think it’s very funny that ruling class does every once in a while say things that makes it sound like they really do feel that way, that there is somebody who’s going to threaten them. Several years ago the private equity titan Steve Schwarzman said that the threat of lifting his tax break was like the Nazi invasion of Poland. So these guys are scared, I think, because in the back of their mind they know that they’re vulnerable. They feel guilty. They’ve had it their way for several decades. And you know, we do see some rumblings. And the Sanders candidacy and the enthusiasm it’s been received with is suggestive of a population that’s really tired of this old way of doing things.

We have a serious economic problem in the country. We’ve recovered from the worst of the recession, but it’s still very stagnant. Incomes are stagnant. I think we’re vulnerable to a further recession. And then there are long-term things like the climate crisis that we’re not even talking about, much less addressing. And he’s absolutely right, we need to break out of these old molds, old ways of thinking, old power structures. Hillary Clinton certainly is representative of that old guard. And Sanders, though chronologically older than she is, is at least a breath of fresh air.

JAY: Just in the last quote that we just played, it ended with Sanders talking about how the top one-tenth of one percent owns nearly as much as the bottom, next 90 percent. But he won’t really address the question of ownership, except to say that I’m not in favor of the government owning the means of production. Here’s a little quote where he says that.

SANDERS: I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street. Or own the means of production. But I do believe that the middle class and the working families of this country who produce the wealth of this country deserve a decent standard of living, and that their incomes should go up, not down.

JAY: If you want to talk about is he a socialist, anyone that knows anything about socialism knows that socialism is about social ownership. One doesn’t have to create the whole spectre of the government owning everything. But I would think if you were a social democrat you would at least talk about strengthening the public sector. And then for example, compared to Roosevelt, in some ways–if you want to call Roosevelt a socialist, which I think is stretching the definition of the term, or even social democrat.

But Roosevelt had direct job programs. He used government to directly hire millions of people. I don’t hear any talk from Bernie Sanders about a direct jobs program, which would be kind of socialistic, in a sense. Also when it comes to his, one of his most important things, like breaking up the big banks, he does talk a bit about credit unions, but he doesn’t talk about any kind of public-owned banks. There’s somewhere between the government owning everything and a buildout of the public sector to really balance the power of concentrated ownership. And I’m not really hearing what I would think is enough of that to really qualify one as a socialist, at any rate. Even in today’s terms.

HENWOOD: No, I, I agree. And you know, we look at–he talks frequently about the Scandinavian model, and those are overwhelmingly dominated by private ownership. So it’s social democracy, regulated capitalism, redistributionist capitalism. But–and there is some stepping on the prerogatives of the investing class through taxation and through regulation. But you know, it’s certainly not rejiggering the ownership structure of the country.

And you know, the financial markets, one of their central roles in this American system in particular is the organization of ownership. And the stock markets and the bond markets may look bizarre and off in their own world sometimes, but they really are ultimately about the assertion of ownership and control over the productive apparatus. And you know, he’s not going to–not talking about interfering with that very much. Certainly talking about higher taxes and maybe tighter regulations, and splitting up banks. But if anything, that’s in the interest of more competition, which is the old American populist approach to things, more competition, and not necessarily a larger public sector.

We could have a postal bank, for example, like Japan has one, but they’re privatizing it. We could have state banks. I believe North Dakota has one, but no other state does. We could have all kinds of experimental financial institutions. Since finance is so tied up with ownership we could have a whole system of worker co-ops with public banks or cooperatively owned banks at the center of them. These are ways we could experiment with a new model of ownership, a new kind of, new approach to socialism that is not still following a kind of statist model that people have thought of in the past.

But you know, Sanders is not talking about any of that. He’s talking about regulation and redistribution. And given the way neoliberalism has restructured the world over the last 30 years I think it’s very hard for people to imagine anything else, anything more ambitious. We have now a whole generation of people who have grown up now knowing nothing other than the world that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher created, and that Bill Clinton certainly reinforced, and helped. The transformation of the Labour party in England and the Democratic party here has been a very crucial part of the whole neoliberal revolution.

So I think Sanders is having a hard time stepping out of that mode of thinking, but still he’s challenging it on, he’s got one foot out of it and one foot still in it, and one foot out is better than no feet out.

JAY: Which is what the alternative is. At least the alternative within the Democratic party. Here’s another clip from the Bernie Sanders speech.

SANDERS: The bottom line is that today in America we not only have massive wealth and income inequality, but a power structure built around that inequality which protects those who have the money. Today a handful of super wealthy campaign contributors have enormous influence over the political process while their lobbyists determine much of what goes on in Congress.

JAY: So Doug, he’s talking about the way political power works in America. That there’s this clear link between people that own stuff and have this massive amounts of wealth, and use it to essentially own the political process. And this needs to be changed.

So this is where I get back to this original framing that I was talking about. If you look at that just from the point of view of what everyone else is saying that’s getting mainstream television coverage, it’s quite a radical thing to say. Even though, frankly, everybody knows it. On the other hand, can you really change that with–even if you were to succeed with some of these Roosevelt reforms, can you actually change who had power? Roosevelt never changed who had power in the country. And let me go back to one more caveat, which is why this whole thing is rather complicated. Even if there was this–I mean, if there was a massive fight, and he calls in various places in this speech and others for a political revolution, for a mass movement, if there was one of these to win one of these reforms, that would be pretty good.

HENWOOD: Yes, it’d be really good. The lack of a movement is a problem. I don’t see how you organize such a thing around an election campaign. Nader ran several times for office on a Green Party ticket sometimes, and not on others, and disappeared after the election and never really did anything to organize a third party or some kind of independent movement. I keep hearing talk that maybe Sanders is doing that, or it’s going to be a byproduct of his campaign, there will actually be some sort of movement developing, some kind of organization. But in the absence of that it’s really hard to imagine challenging that kind of ruling class power. If by some fluke he were elected president he would be eaten alive. The political establishment, the media, there would just be such a campaign against him. And without some kind of broad popular movement to propel and sustain him, it would all fall apart in a very unpleasant way.

So that’s, I think, a flaw in this whole model. We’re not going to change the world just through an election campaign, but it is really, really good to have people talking about this sort of thing and thinking about this sort of thing. And it’s very reassuring, inspiring, even, to find such a positive reaction to it. And he’s generating crowds far larger than any other presidential candidate, and that’s really extraordinary. And I hope that means something is going somewhere.

JAY: I mean, I think one of the significant thing about his campaign, that it shows a lot of the grip that Cold War psychology had on Americans, that anything with the word ‘socialist’ in it would have freaked people out. That grip is actually gone for a lot of people, especially people under 30, 35 years old. Although I must say, some of Sanders’ thinking, especially when you get into foreign policy, which by the way, we’re not going to today but we will next week take up the foreign policy part of his speech. I mean, you saw that his foreign policy has still got one foot fairly firmly in Cold War thinking, his defense of NATO and such.

But set that aside. If he was president by some fluke, I mean, again, I think given the way power works, in fact exactly the way he describes it, and how much money controls the political process, is probably why he never will be president, but who knows. The bully pulpit character of that, the fact that mainstream media would have to listen to him, he actually could call on a mass movement. It would be rather remarkable. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that moment. But it would certainly be a game changer in the way that discourse takes place in this country.

HENWOOD: Oh, certainly. It would be remarkable. He would have to contend with Congress, which is a frightening and horrible thing for the most part, and nothing would ever get through it. Look at the way the Republican Congress has treated Obama, who has certainly no, no rabble-rouser by any means. They treated him like a socialist.

And I think, one of the reasons I think perhaps that socialism has now, has a better reputation in the United States than it did since, I don’t know, probably 100 years ago, is the fact that so many people have called Obama a socialist and people would say well, he’s not so bad. Maybe socialism isn’t so bad either. So, and I think maybe those attacks have done something to rehabilitate the word.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I think the best line Obama had in the whole election campaign in ’08, and I wish he kind of believed in it more than just using the line, but in that last week, week and a half of the campaign McCain went, really pushed this he’s a socialist, verging on he’s a commie. And when asked about it, Obama said, well, I read my Bible and it teaches me I should be my brother’s keeper. It was a great retort. Unfortunately I don’t think he followed through on much of that during his presidency, but that’s another question.

Anyway, just to wind up our conversation, one more clip from Sanders.

SANDERS: Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system which is corrupt. That we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.

JAY: Doug, this is where we get back to the nub of the issue of Bernie Sanders. A lot of his critique of the way capitalism works and the American system works is excellent. A lot of the proposals would certainly make people’s life better, and it’s the kind of thing people could fight for. On the other hand, at least in my mind, this is kind of an illusion that there’s such a thing as an economic system that both works for the very wealthy and everyone else. It’s kind of a contradiction in terms.

HENWOOD: Well yeah, if he wants to look at a real world model, he likes to point to Denmark, where the distribution of income is certainly much more egalitarian than here. The social benefits are good. People become unemployed, they’re not ruined. You don’t have, like, a million medical bankruptcies a year or whatever it is we have here. There’s certainly a more humane way of organizing a fundamentally capitalist economy than ours is, which is just pure sink or swim brutality. And it’s gotten only more so over the last several decades.

But you know, he’s not really–Marx used to complain that the unions of his time would want higher wages, not the abolition of the wages system. And you could make that argument that Sanders is basically just looking at a better deal out of capitalism rather than transforming it in any fundamental way. But given the, the dominant nature of politics these days, I’ll take it.

JAY: I mean, I think what Hillary said in the first debate, you know, our job is not, is to rein in the excesses of capitalism.

HILLARY CLINTON: I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We’re the United States of America, and it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities that we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.

MODERATOR: Senator Sanders?

SANDERS: I think everybody is in agreement. We are a great, entrepreneurial nation. We have got to encourage that. Of course we have to support small and medium-sized businesses.

JAY: And Sanders is essentially saying the same thing, except I think there’s a lot more meat on his bones of what he’s saying, reining in the excesses of capitalism. And he certainly wants to rein it in a heck of a lot more than she does. Now, whether that’s possible or not is kind of another conversation.

But in the final analysis, there are tens of thousands, perhaps millions of people, talking about these kinds of policies, who see it as something a little more realistic, not just pie in the sky, because he’s running in the Democratic party. In terms of the movement, is this fundamentally a positive thing? You know, there are critics that are saying in the final analysis, it’s not a positive thing if in fact this whole movement just gets corralled into the Hillary campaign, in the final analysis.

HENWOOD: Yeah. Well that’s, that’s always the worry. Sanders has not been officially a Democrat for most of his political career. Maybe all of his political career. Now he is a Democrat, suddenly, and I think some partisan Democrats are annoyed by that. But yeah, there’s that, always the risk that it’s just going to end up as the usual graveyard of progressive movements, the Democratic party and the Hillary campaign. But it’s been fascinating to watch Hillary try to reinvent herself, at least in the last–until the last couple of days, try to reinvent herself as some sort of born-again progressive.

She has spent 30 years or so serving corporate America in various capacities, whether as a lawyer in Arkansas or as a politician. She said in the first debate she served, she represented Wall Street in the Senate. That’s been her whole career. She and her husband have raised billions of dollars from corporate America for their foundation and for their political campaigns. And it’s just not plausible when she claims now to be some kind of born-again populist, or whatever it is she’s claiming this week. Nothing she says should be believed.

But you know, Sanders is credible when he says these things. But you know, the Bush speechwriter Matthew Dowd once said, if you argue against us while using our language, we’re winning. And I think Hillary’s showing that. There’s some way in which Sanders has set the tone of the Democratic debate, and Hillary is forced to respond to it, which is a fascinating thing, which suggests something may be shifting in the dominant discourse slowly but perceptibly, and Sanders is really helping to make that happen.

JAY: Well, in a few weeks we’re going to talk again with Doug when his book comes out, My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency. And we’ll get into this, the Clintons, which essentially as in many countries, it’s not unique, but campaign from the left, govern from the right. Thanks very much for joining us, Doug.

HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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