The Democratic nomination for President seems all locked up. Hillary Clinton has name recognition and donor appeal that nobody can come close to. What chance does a Jewish man from Vermont, who calls himself a democratic socialist and refuses to have a super PAC, have against the Clinton juggernaut?
You might think that Sanders would try to run away from the socialist label, but that would mistake two things: Sanders’ honesty and the real nature of American democratic socialism.
For decades, conservatives have used the idea of socialism as equivalent with Soviet-style communism to mislead Americans into voting against liberals. Every policy that President Obama, a liberal, advocates has been labeled “socialist”, and therefore presumably un-American, in the conservative media world. Obama-haters regularly call him a “Muslim socialist”, despite the inherent contradiction. A fine way to find out what American socialism is really about is to look at Sanders’ first political job as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for eight years, 1981-1989.
Although conservatives claim socialism is about big government, Sanders showed that American democratic socialism is about social ownership. His administration promoted locally owned small businesses, affordable housing, and community involvement in city planning. He fought a big developer’s vision of converting Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront into high-priced hotels and condos. Instead what used to be an industrial wasteland now has a community boathouse, a bike path, public beaches and parkland, and a science center.
The developer did not become an enemy, but a friend of Sanders, because both were committed to making Burlington a better place to live. Sanders promoted programs to give women an equal chance as entrepreneurs and workers. His administration passed an ordinance requiring that 10% of city-funded construction jobs be held by women. Corporations opened new facilities in Burlington, some of which are now owned by their employees. Burlington has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
Despite decades of name-calling by the right, socialism is no longer the political curse word associated with Senator Joe McCarthy. According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2011, 31% of Americans had a positive reaction to the word socialism, while 60% had a negative reaction. But those responses are highly dependent on age. Americans over 50 were highly negative about socialism and positive about “capitalism”. Those 18-29 were more positive than negative about socialism (49% to 43%), and more negative about capitalism (47% to 46%).
Another poll from 2011 found that a majority of Americans agreed with Sanders’ basic platform. Both Republicans (53% to 41%) and Democrats (91% to 8%) said there is “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations”. Both Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly said that our economy “unfairly favors the wealthy”. Inequality has suddenly emerged as a major media story, and a more recent poll less than a year ago showed that 46% of Americans say “the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem”.
Sanders’ specific proposals to shift economic power back toward the middle class are gaining wider public support. He wants to raise the minimum wage and increase Social Security payments. He wants to close the tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest 1% and lower the taxes of the great majority of Americans. He says about the biggest banks, “if an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”
He won the Congressional Leadership Award of the Military Officers Association of America for trying to increase disability compensation for veterans and collaborating with Sen. John McCain to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Unlike Clinton and all the Republicans, Sanders does not have to explain away past votes. He voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He voted against the Patriot Act intrusions into our personal communications. In 2005, he proposed curtailing the government’s ability to look at our library and book-buying records. While Clinton and all the Republicans try to line up the support of billionaires, Sanders has refused to create a super PAC.
His real positions rather than right-wing caricatures have begun to turn people’s heads. His speeches attract increasing numbers of older Americans, the most reliable voting bloc. A straw poll of delegates to the Wisconsin Democratic party convention earlier this month showed Sanders catching up to Hillary Clinton, winning 40% of votes against her 49%. Many Republicans agree with some of Sanders’ fundamental positions about money playing too great a role in politics. Some are openly talking about voting for him.
It’s too early to say who will win the Democratic nomination. But it’s never too early to think about how we can win back our country from the billionaires and their political buddies.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 16, 2015