This type of analysis should supersede the analysis of the mainstream media who are but wards of a plutocracy that is threatened with the tenets Bernie Sanders professes.
The article is a bit long but it guides one through the necessary narrative. Please share this throughout the entire social media sphere, blogosphere, and everywhere.
Republicans, Democrats, and Bernie Sanders: Expanding America’s Political Dialogue
by Bryan Henry
Who is Bernie Sanders?
Senator Bernard Sanders, often referred to by his fans simply as Bernie, has announced that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States of America. Bernie has served in the House of Representatives for 16 years and the Senate since 2006 as an Independent, but has caucused with the Democrats and voted with them most of the time. He identifies politically as a “democratic socialist” and this has already led to some misunderstanding and mistreatment by the media.
The average American may not know much about the variety of non-Soviet socialisms that exist on the political spectrum; and the media has already begun to sensationalize Bernie’s use of the “S” word to describe his political views and consequently belittle his candidacy. It is disheartening to witness the disrespectful reaction to Bernie’s campaign given that his views fall more within the American political tradition than many of the policies being promoted by Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul (whose collective time in elected office doesn’t begin to equal that Bernie). Yet, the media automatically considers these candidates “serious” and assumes that Bernie doesn’t stand a chance.
None of the aforementioned Republicans, two of which promote changing the federal income tax to a flat tax (the income tax has always been progressive), have been asked in the demeaning manner that Bernie has why they are “bothering” to run. Perhaps the coverage of Bernie’s campaign will improve once people get past the initial novelty of the “S” word being used in an American context, and this article hopes to contribute the type of clarifications that will legitimize Bernie’s candidacy for the American voter.
History of Political Thought
The average American thinks that Karl Marx invented socialism because he was a bad, bad man. Socialist political thought actually pre-dates Marx and his political philosophy became the dominant stand of socialism in Germany and France in the late 19th century. However, even though Marxism became synonymous with socialism, many of Marx’s ideas were abandoned when the facts on the ground contradicted his theories. For example, the middle class in Europe continued to grow rather than shrink. His belief that the working class would continuously expand until revolution would overthrow the liberal governments of Europe and abolish capitalism (whatever that was supposed to mean) just didn’t happen. As a result, socialists abandoned Marx’s revolutionary theories and instead promoted socialist policies through the democratic process. Why overthrow the government when you can vote? Why abolish capitalism when you can improve working conditions, increase benefits, and bargain for better wages? By the end of the 19th century, “democratic socialism” had replaced revolution and liberal democracy was evolving into social democracy.
Think of liberal democracy as “upper-middle class” democracy with property qualifications for voting, lots of economic inequality, and a generally laissez-faire approach to the developing industrial economy. As the vote was extended to all men in the 19th century, political parties began to promote policies that would benefit all men. Not only did the working class want a better life, but they also needed to possess the economic security and education necessary to fully participate in self-government. “Democratic socialism” aimed to regulate the economy in order to promote equal opportunity and guarantee basic levels of well being for everyone in society. The assumption was that meaningful political equality required less economic inequality, and that reducing economic inequality required abandoning laissez-faire economics. Marx argued that capitalism needed to be destroyed, but his heirs realized that government could make capitalism work better. Examples of democratic socialist political parties that were founded in the late 19th century include the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, and what became the Socialist Party in France (all three remain one of the two major parties in these countries today).
America’s “European” Welfare State
Similar realizations and changes were taking place in the United States, as well. The Progressive Movement was championed by Republicans such as Teddy Roosevelt who promoted breaking up monopolies (something Bernie promotes doing with big banks today), and Democrats such as Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the passage of the progressive federal income tax (which Bernie wants to make more progressive). The United States even had a Socialist Party that promoted women’s suffrage, better working conditions, and higher wages. The popularity of the Socialists in the United States suffered due to their opposition to World War I and responding to the Russian Revolution of 1917 proved quite difficult. During the Great Depression, when laissez-faire economics was finally abandoned in the United States, the Democrats ultimately passed many of the policies that had been promoted earlier by the Socialists. After World War II, the U.S. was consumed with anti-communist rhetoric during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The result was a further deterioration of Socialist influence in the United States, while in Western Europe “democratic socialism” was creating the modern welfare state.
The modern welfare state was based on the Scandinavian model. Denmark and Sweden had created generous welfare states after World War I and weathered the Great Depression much better than other European states. After World War II, the Labour Party emulated the success of Scandinavia by creating a national health care system (socialized medicine) and providing generous family allowances, social insurance benefits, and retirement benefits. The Democrats in the United States ultimately expanded Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act to include Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid. Most recently, the Democrats extended the benefits of health care insurance to millions of people with Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The United States has had a welfare state since the 1930s, but the United States is still considered a liberal democracy rather than a social democracy. The difference is really just a matter of degree; the United States has a more individualistic political culture, a unique and problematic racial history, and has generally been less willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for more generous public programs.
When Bernie Sanders says that he is a “democratic socialist” who caucuses with the Democrats he is basically saying that if he lived in the United Kingdom he would be a member of the Labour Party. When Bernie Sanders declares that he is running for the Democratic nomination he intends to include within the Democratic Party’s platform policies that would expand the benefits of the welfare state by making college more affordable, health care more accessible, and retirement more secure. Bernie wants to make further social progress and build on the Democratic Party’s legislative legacy, while Republicans and Tea Partiers want to dismantle the welfare state that we currently enjoy. Still not sure what you think about someone who uses the “S” word to describe his political views? Let’s discuss how Bernie fits into the American political scene.
America’s Political Divide
The debate between Republicans and Democrats is really a debate within the political philosophy of liberalism. A significant rift occurred within liberalism in the late 19th century in response to the social impacts of industrialism and urbanism. Long story short: classical liberalism evolved into welfare-state liberalism and/or democratic socialism. Today, Republicans generally support “neoclassical liberalism,” which is similar to the laissez-faire approach that was used prior to the Gilded Age and Great Depression; and Democrats generally support “welfare-state liberalism” which emerged during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century and came to fruition with the New Deal in the 1930s. Recognizing that the debate between Republicans and Democrats is in fact a debate within a specific political ideology, liberalism, enables us to appreciate the ideas and policies that are marginalized from what could be a more comprehensive political dialogue.
While liberalism was certainly at the heart of America’s founding in the late 18th century, liberal democracy evolved over the late 19th century and early 20th century into social democracy in other parts of the industrialized world. As discussed earlier, the United States has remained a liberal democracy with a generous welfare state and prosperous market economy. Going beyond the old debate within liberalism between Republicans and Democrats could enable us to approach economic and social issues from a new perspective, one that will enable us to constructively face the present and embrace the future.
Democrats should not be hesitant to do this because Republicans have already done so by infusing their brand of liberalism with libertarianism, the root of their opposition to the current welfare state. Republicans have moved the center of our political debate to the right, and Bernie’s campaign will play a role in expanding the scope of our dialogue further to the left.
In trying to make sense of, and ultimately supersede, the decades-long political debate between Republicans and Democrats about what government’s role should be in the promotion of opportunity, prosperity, and well-being, it may be helpful to engage in some amateur political philosophy! Let’s begin by considering what the basic necessities are for an individual to have opportunity, prosperity, and well-being. Imagine a child is born. Now, what do they need as they grow into adulthood? They need access to healthcare, they need loving guardians, they need good libraries and parks to help facilitate intellectual and physical enrichment, and they need access to Pre-K, K-12, and post-secondary education. They need a job. They need a retirement plan. It seems that quite a lot is necessary for opportunity, prosperity, and well-being to become a reality!
Now, let’s try to figure out how Republicans and Democrats approach government’s role in providing and the individual’s role in obtaining the things on our list. Disclaimer: The following comparison and analysis will be limited in its scope in that it will not address cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but will instead focus primarily on social and economic issues.
Republicans argue that individuals should purchase their own healthcare, and that the quality of care and the ability to obtain care at all, should be determined by one’s ability to pay. Republicans do not believe in universal healthcare or that healthcare is a human right. They view healthcare as a commodity subject to the market, much the same as an automobile or television. Some Republicans agree that all children deserve healthcare, regardless of their guardian’s ability to pay, and have supported health care programs for children.
Republicans argue that Pre-K should be purchased by individuals rather than publicly funded, but they generally support publicly funded K-12 education despite perennial calls for school vouchers that could be used to obtain private, religious instruction. For higher education, individuals must purchase it themselves. Most Republicans support the idea of a minimum wage (some libertarians do not), and some support raising the minimum wage, as well. The minimum wage, unfortunately, is not a living wage.
Republicans generally support Social Security, but also believe that individuals should be responsible for providing for their own retirement through personal savings and investments. Republicans want to decrease Social Security benefits over time and make people rely more on their personal savings. Republicans want to gradually convert Medicare and Medicaid into voucher programs that would shift costs onto the individual.
Democrats argue that healthcare is a human right and promote universal healthcare. The means to that end can differ, expanding the private market through legislation like the Affordable Care Act being the current approach and a single-payer system that would simply expand Medicare to everyone being Bernie’s approach. Democrats argue that Pre-K should be available to everyone through government subsidies.
Democrats, like Republicans, generally support publicly funded K-12 education, but politicians from both parties have increasingly embraced a corporate reform movement that will undermine public education and enable gradual privatization. Democrats promote grants and loans in order to expand access to higher education.
Democrats support raising the minimum wage. Democrats believe that Social Security is crucial for retirement and some, including Bernie, promote expanding the benefits provided by Social Security. Note: President Obama, often derided as a “socialist” by Republicans, did not promote a single-payer system during healthcare reform, has fully embraced the corporate reform movement that is undermining public K-12 education, and has been willing to cut Social Security benefits in negotiations with Republicans.
Government and Individuals
One of the most obvious differences between Republicans and Democrats is what they think the role of the individual should be in securing healthcare, obtaining education, and preparing for retirement. The Republicans argue that individuals should be self-sufficient and independent. If individuals work hard, knowing that they have to provide for themselves, then not only will they be able to provide for themselves, but government won’t have to provide for them. The assumption that is made by Republicans is that if an individual works hard they will actually be able to purchase healthcare, Pre-K, and higher education for their kids and save enough money to retire!
The reality for many people is that this is not true, despite the fact that government is already helping out in a variety of ways in the form of tax deductions, public services, and social insurance programs. Some Republicans even argue that what prevents individuals from providing everything they need for themselves is government itself. Essentially, the argument goes like this: if people didn’t have to pay so many taxes (Americans have one of the lowest tax burdens in the industrialized world) and if government decreased its regulation of the economy, then everyone would have enough money to purchase what they need for themselves. Individuals would compete in the market for jobs, and those jobs would naturally pay a salary high enough to pay for healthcare, Pre-K, K-12, higher education, and retirement. Not to mention transportation, Internet access, and housing.
I think many people, certainly the average earner, would agree that if they were responsible for paying for all of these things themselves and saving for retirement, their annual salaries would need to triple or quadruple. Meanwhile, Republican tax cuts and deregulation have only ever resulted in stagnant lower and middle class wages with reduced purchasing power, rising budget deficits that threaten the long-term stability of important social insurance programs that work well, and the accumulation of income and wealth at the top that undermines political equality by corrupting the political process.
As we all know, a capitalist economy produces vast amounts of income inequality. The market produces full-time jobs that pay less than the poverty line and full-time jobs that pay millions of dollars. Republicans typically argue that such inequality is the result of competition and effort. The individual making $20,000 and the individual making $2 million have unequal skills and work ethic. The individual making $20,000 did not work hard in school, has minimal skills, and is probably lazy. The individual making $2 million did work hard in school, has specialized skills, and must be driven to succeed. Let’s assume this characterization is correct: Each individual got the salary that they “deserve” and their income reflects their skills, work ethic, and contribution to society.
Now let’s ask a question: As a child, did one of them have a more stable home environment, wealthier guardians, and access to better schools? Did they “compete” from an equal starting point? Let’s even assume that they had similar socio-economic backgrounds. What about their kids? Will their kids now have equal opportunity if these two individuals are responsible for providing everything for themselves? Will one child have better healthcare, Pre-K, K-12, higher education, housing, etc. and consequently a better chance to “compete” in the marketplace when they become an adult? Again, what about their kids? All adults were once children. Bernie lived this himself. He knows what it is to be poor. He is committed, as an elected official, to making concrete improvements in people’s lives by passing legislation to make equal opportunity a reality. In other words, Bernie is serious about democracy.
What Democracy Entails
Politics, the dialogue and process that we have as citizens to elect representatives to make laws that are supposed to reflect our vision for society, deals with this question: does creating equal opportunity for all children require taking some money from the individual making $2 million and redistributing it to the individual making $20,000? The response that Democrats (and Bernie) give to this question is that a progressive income tax should redistribute wealth from the individual making $2 million to the individual making $20,000 in the form of healthcare programs, subsidies for Pre-K, adequately funded K-12 public schools, grants for higher education, and Social Security benefits. The child of the individual making $20,000 would then have equal opportunity to compete in the marketplace and the individual making $20,000 would have access to a doctor when they are sick and would have some financial stability in old age. All the while, the individual making $2 million and their children would also benefit from these programs.
In other words, Democrats generally agree with the competition in the marketplace that produces income inequality, but they argue that redistribution afterwards is necessary in order to promote equal opportunity and provide some basic level of well being for everyone in society. If the economy produces vast amounts of income inequality and wealth is not redistributed to create equal opportunity for children, then the result will be a rigid class system with a pseudo-aristocracy, lack of social mobility, and the illusion of meritocracy. Politicians who promote policies that lead towards this result are at odds with the American Founding and America’s political history. Some people will try to characterize Bernie as outside of the political mainstream, but his policy goals are as American as it gets.
What Makes Bernie Sanders Different
It should be clear now that while Republicans and Democrats share many views, they disagree over whether or not the results of competition in the marketplace are the outcome of fair competition between individuals with an equal opportunity to succeed. The flaw in the Republican view is the belief that the competition is fair; while the flaw in the Democratic view is the belief that the results of the competition are just. Democrats, like Republicans, allow the market to produce vast income inequalities and do not question the results themselves. The question we asked earlier was whether or not the individuals making $2 million and $20,000 each had equal opportunity to succeed and what would be required to provide equal opportunity for their children. Going beyond the Republicans and Democrats, that is, beyond neo-classical and welfare-state liberalism, another question could be asked, and it’s a question that Bernie does ask: should people be making $2 million and $20,000? What is the difference in skills that produces such a disparity? Is one individual really producing that much more than the other, working that much harder, or contributing that much more to society? Is it even moral for someone to make $2 million? Furthermore, since our government is elected based on universal suffrage, are the two individuals who make $2 million and $20,000 able to participate in the political process equally? Will one individual have more access to education and information? Will one individual have more access to politicians themselves? Will one individual be able to influence political campaigns more than the other? Will that disparity translate into laws that benefit the individual making $2 million and prevent equal opportunity for the child of the individual making $20,000? As Bernie keeps asking, what happens when billionaires can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections?
Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that the income inequality produced in a capitalist society is tied to productivity. Would it even be possible for the productivity of two individual persons to be so different that their salaries would be $2 million and $20,000? Or let’s look at income inequality from the perspective of social contribution, meaning society’s perception of the occupation’s importance. An occupation with high social contribution could be police officers, nurses, teachers, elected officials, scientists, etc. and these individuals would receive a salary that reflected their degree of social contribution. The list would be long and subject to disagreement, but we can see the possibility that certain jobs contribute more to society than others.
How could someone’s contribution to society be so high that they would “deserve” $2 million every year? Or for that matter, $18 million, which is what the CEO of JP Morgan Chase made in 2013. An even more interesting question might be whether some jobs really are more important than others. We might be inclined to say that teaching is more important than custodial work, but any building has to be cleaned by someone. Should someone who works full-time as a custodian not make enough money to have healthcare, Internet access, or take a vacation? Should their kids not have access to Pre-K and higher education?
Again, the Democratic response to the income inequality between the CEO of JP Morgan Chase and the custodian is to redistribute wealth after the market has given each individual their earnings, which in a capitalist society does not reflect productivity or social contribution. The Republican response to this income inequality is that one person worked harder than the other and/or that life isn’t fair. If the CEO of JP Morgan Chase decides, as an individual, to donate some of their wealth to charity then all the better for those with less wealth. We could, by refusing to limit the parameters of our political debate about what society should be like to the Republican and Democratic views, go beyond their views to ask two basic questions: 1) Why shouldn’t we, as a self-governing people, guarantee a living wage to everyone willing to work? Determine what the necessary amount is to provide adequate housing, food, entertainment, etc. (let’s say $30,000 annually for an individual, or $15 an hour in the service sector) and make that the new minimum full-time wage. We have the power to do this. 2) Why shouldn’t we, as a self-governing people, decide on a maximum wage? Determine, based on possible skills, productivity, and social contribution, what the maximum wage should be. In other words, allow the marketplace to produce salaries of $2 million, $5 million, $25 million, etc. and then significantly increase the tax rate on earnings above a certain amount, or require that CEO pay not be more than 50x that of the average worker. We have the power to do this. Personally, I cannot think of anything that anyone does on a daily basis that they “earn” or “deserve” more than $1 million. Not only do I fail to see how someone could deserve that much money, but I also fail to see why they would need that much money.
The obvious response from Republicans and Democrats is that a generous minimum salary and the very existence of a maximum salary would undermine peoples’ incentive to work hard. Personally, I do not think this would be true. I think people would still pursue jobs that a) either interest them, b) pay well, or c) some combination of both. I do not think that anyone would say: “Well, I cannot make more than $1 million a year so I will just become a custodian and take my $30,000.” Furthermore, anyone who needs the prospect of more than $1 million a year in order to get up in the morning and contribute to society has some serious moral issues. Who are these people who need more than $1 million every year? You might think that this proposal for a living wage and a maximum salary is radical or socialist or impractical, but making these two changes would not change much about how the economy works. We would still have a capitalist economy, but it would have both minimum ($30,000) and maximum ($1 million) annual salaries. We could provide universal healthcare by simply expanding Medicare to cover everyone. We could publically-fund Pre-K and higher education. We could increase the salaries of numerous occupations that we do perceive to have high social contribution. We could strengthen Social Security to guarantee a decent retirement. We could lead the world in the transition to renewable energy and green infrastructure.
What Makes Bernie Sanders Exciting
Undoubtedly, some will think that I am hopelessly naive, optimistic, and ignorant, but it seems like we have the wealth to reorganize society in such a way that people would enjoy more opportunity, prosperity, and well-being. We simply have to look beyond the ideas of the Republicans and Democrats. Going beyond the debate within liberalism does not entail abandoning our history; it simply involves facing the problems of the present with the best ideas available to us. The future can be better than the past, that is exactly why monarchy and aristocracy were abandoned during America’s founding. It’s why slavery was abolished, why women were granted the right the vote, why the elderly and children are now guaranteed health care, why gays and lesbians are gaining equality, and why the environmental movement continues to grow and succeed. The political rights we have inherited from the late 18th century can be used to expand our social, economic, and environmental rights in the 21st century. We simply have to use our rights to discuss these ideas, organize on their behalf, and elect politicians who share our vision. What I am suggesting is exactly what Bernie has called for with is candidacy: a revolution of sorts without a revolution. Put simply, a political revolution. A democratic movement. A peaceful transition to a more equitable, sustainable, and progressive form of liberal democracy. Republicans, and some Democrats, will say that this is “class warfare” and “socialism.” The last question we should ask is this: so what?