By Josh Barro, The New York Times, October 19, 2015
|From a Sanders for President union poster|
In last week’s Democratic Party debate, Bernie Sanders stuck up for the idea that Americans are prepared to elect a democratic socialist, which is how he describes himself. “We’re gonna win,” he said, when the moderator, Anderson Cooper, pressed him on his electability under any kind of socialist label.
This led Hillary Rodham Clinton to defend capitalism, saying, “We would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in history,” though she allowed the need to “rein in the excesses of capitalism.”
The weirdest thing about this fight is that Mr. Sanders, a Vermont senator, is not really a socialist. Or at least, if he is a socialist, he is also, at the same time, a capitalist.
“I think Bernie Sanders’s use of the word ‘socialism’ is causing much more confusion than it is adding value,” said Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Mr. Kenworthy, who recently wrote a book called “Social Democratic America” and thinks about these sorts of things for a living, offered a suggestion: “He is, if you want to put it this way, a democratic socialist capitalist.”
Ugh. Do we have to put it that way? In addition to being a mouthful, that still seems as if it’s going to confuse a lot of people.
After all, Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize the steel mills or the auto companies or even the banks. Like Mrs. Clinton, he believes in a mixed economy, where capitalist institutions are mediated through taxes and regulation. He just wants more taxes and more regulation than Mrs. Clinton does. He certainly seems like a regular Democrat, only more so.
“It’s not socialism, it’s social democracy, which is a big difference,” said Mike Konczal, an economic policy expert at the left-wing Roosevelt Institute. Social democracy, Mr. Konczal noted, “implies a very active role for capitalism in the framework.”
Social democracy, Mr. Sanders will have you remember, is not what they were up to in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It’s the little-of-this, little-of-that philosophy of parties like Labour in Britain or the Social Democrats in Germany. Such parties have abandoned their past support for the nationalization of industry and have presided for long periods over economies that certainly appeared capitalist to visiting American tourists, albeit with higher taxes than we have in the United States.
Mr. Sanders himself emphasizes the “democratic” part of democratic socialism, and promised in last week’s debate that “we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is.” He cited Denmark, which has very high taxes, very generous social programs and a robust economy driven by private capital investment, as an example of a place that does social democracy really well. (Though, as Matt Yglesias at Vox noted, Denmark’s Social Democrats have been out of power for 11 of the last 15 years while the country’s policies have continued to look pretty social democratic, further highlighting the difficulty of figuring out who’s really a socialist or not, or what.)
Mr. Konczal laid out four hallmarks. You might be a social democrat if you support: a mixed economy, that is, a combination of private enterprise and government spending; social insurance programs that support the old and the poor; a Keynesian economic policy of government borrowing and spending to offset economic recessions; and democratic participation in government and the workplace.
If that’s what social democracy is, it’s not obvious what the term would add to the American political lexicon. Most Democrats would tell you they support all four of those things. So would quite a few Republicans.
Mr. Sanders said on the campaign trail this week that police and fire departments are “socialist institutions,” as are public libraries. He noted that Social Security and Medicare, which are very popular with Americans, are “socialist programs.” This, again, is more confusing than clarifying. If supporting Social Security and public firefighting makes you a social democrat, the term does nothing to distinguish Mr. Sanders from his opponents.
“When you look at the policies, there’s a way to see it as Bernie has cranked up Hillary’s agenda to 11,” Mr. Konczal said. To wit: Mrs. Clinton favors preserving Social Security with some enhancements for the poorest beneficiaries while he wants to raise taxes on the rich to expand it in ways that could add $65 per month to the average benefit. This, like most political debates, is a disagreement about how far to turn the knobs when adjusting policy; it does not seem to call for a separate ideological label.
That said, Mr. Konczal did offer one difference between Mr. Sanders’s and Mrs. Clinton’s worldviews that is of kind rather than degree. This is decommodification: the idea that some goods and services are so important that they ought to be removed from the market economy altogether.
The idea behind the Affordable Care Act, and behind Mrs. Clinton’s approach to tinkering with Obamacare, is that quality health insurance should be affordable to everyone, and that people who can’t afford it should be given subsidies to buy it. For a democratic socialist, that’s not good enough; instead, health care should simply be provided to everyone without charge, removing the profit motive from health care.
But even this is a matter of degrees. Mr. Sanders favors Medicare for all: a single-payer health care system, with the federal government as the sole insurer. This would remove the profit motive from health insurance but not from health care, which could continue to be provided by private doctors and hospitals, often working on a for-profit basis. Mr. Sanders is not proposing to go further, like Britain, and have doctors work directly for the government. Nor does he appear inclined to decommodify broad swathes of the economy; in other countries, even conservatives often endorse special, less-marketized rules for health care than for other sectors.
This distinction is real, but it’s not clear to me that it merits Mr. Sanders his own ideological label. So when Mr. Kenworthy, the California professor, proposed the “democratic socialist capitalist” label to me, I responded by asking how that’s different from being a very liberal Democrat.