Campaign by Sanders shows socialism is no longer a dirty word in US politics

Vermont senator plans to sell his brand of ‘democratic socialism’ more in 2016 race

When German social theorist Werner Sombart asked in his 1906 essay Why Is There No Socialism in America?, he reached the same conclusion his compatriot Friedrich Engels, a political theorist, had a few decades before him.

In America, prosperity actually extended beyond the bourgeoisie to the workers, Engels found. In a nod to his experiences of American life, Sombart said: “All Socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.”

Americans might not be on breadlines but at a time of soaring income inequality and stagnating upward economic mobility, the beef is not so succulent and the apple pie not so sweet.

This is why the "democratic socialism" on offer from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the race to win the Democratic presidential nomination is so appetising to people, particularly the young, hungry for change.


The 74-year-old politician has said he plans to deliver a "major speech" on his political philosophy. He needs to, if he is to broaden the appeal of his underdog campaign to catch the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, particularly after vice-president Joe Biden decided this week not to enter in the race.

"We have some explaining and work to do," Sanders told an audience in the first-nominating state of Iowa last Sunday.

The Independent, who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, has used the term "democratic socialism" as a catch-all to define an unfairness in American society, how the system is rigged in favour of the super-wealthy – "the billionaire class" – when government should represent the interests of all the people.

It’s a simple concept and one that has caught fire among the grassroots left with Sanders’s animated performances at rallies in the early nominating states. His political ideology is probably closer to social democracy, rather than democratic socialism.

"He may well know that distinction but in the United States those social democratic gains would be a tremendous shift in the distribution of power and wealth," says Joseph Schwartz, a national vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has 7,500 members across the country.

Although he has said he doesn’t consider himself a “casino capitalist”, Sanders’s demands for a higher minimum wage, an extension of social welfare and free college education hardly amount to a public takeover of the private sector.

“I like to describe it as vanilla socialism,” says Garrison Nelson, a politics professor at the University of Vermont who has known Sanders for more than 40 years.

“Bernie Sanders is a relatively mild version of socialism. There is no collectivised agriculture, nationalising industries, no confiscation of people’s wealth, no one going off to gulags.”

Whether it is democratic socialism or social democracy, that the S-word is discussed at all in a Democratic presidential debate shows how far the economic upheaval since the financial crisis has shifted America’s political spectrum.

The witch-hunt years of the post-second World War period narrowed America’s political dial from conservative/Republican to liberal-Democratic.

"The gut reaction of half the American people is that if you have the term 'socialist' attached to you, they start looking for the horns coming out the back of your head,"says Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist and professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“The problem for Sanders is he has to explain to people what he means, with the burden of explanation that other politicians don’t have.”

His great advantage is that many who feel left behind by the economic recovery are willing to listen.

In 2011, a Pew Research poll found that the term “socialism” elicited a positive response among 49 per cent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 to a 43 per cent negative response, beating capitalism, which scored 46 per cent in that group to 47 per cent negative. “Bernie Sanders in a sense is riding that wave,” says Wolff. “Having said that, the wave is less pro-socialist than it is anti-capitalist.”

Schwartz calls it “the revolt of the baristas” – young, under-employed, college graduates struggling to make ends meet in America’s big cities. “The reason why Sanders is getting all the notice and why he has presidential candidates being asked in debates about whether they are capitalists or democratic socialists is that the issue of inequality is central to American politics,” he adds.

While no one is envisaging a revolution, the life-long socialist is at least using the public anger to drag the political spectrum left. “It is not enough to get him the nomination but it is certainly enough to push the agenda,” Nelson says.

Sanders is showing that socialism is no longer a dirty word in US politics, although it’s a long way from being as American as apple pie.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times