Bernie Sanders for President?: Economic Justice

Like him or not, Bernie Sanders is not a communist. Instead, Sanders has long identified with democratic socialism, a political and economic position similar to that in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Interestingly enough, such a position is not entirely historically foreign to the United States. Sanders himself often cites President Roosevelt’s 1944 call for a second Bill of Rights – more economic in nature than the first Bill of Rights – as something similar to the policies he presently champions. Sanders has also cited the 1960s Medicare and Medicaid programs as additional examples of that which epitomizes democratic socialism. The goal is a leveling of the playing field so as to create a more just body politic in the United States.

Many improperly critique Sanders’ position as one that flirts with (or is identical to) the despotic forms of state-sponsored communism that existed in the former Soviet Union or which holds sway in present-day China. Such a position would understandably disqualify the man from the United States presidency. But this is not what Sanders stands for and, thus, it is very important to understand what he means by “democratic socialism.”

Broadly speaking, socialism (in contrast to more market-driven economic structures) can be divided into three categories: (1) Communism, wherein a powerful state, after the overthrow of the capitalist ruling class, directs the state’s economy by means of planning and state ownership of the means of production; (2) Neo-Marxism, which, in opposition to a cataclysmic overthrow of the bourgeoisie as advocated in communism, seeks to introduce socialized change by way of a slower, quieter revolution, with the state taking over giant companies; (3) Democratic socialism, which rejects much of Marx’s advocated state-ownership of industry and, instead, proposes detailed regulation of a capitalist economy without the abandonment of independent firms as the basic productive units of the economy.

Democratic socialism is happy to agree with capitalism in terms of the importance of equality of opportunity as an ideal. But for a democratic socialist, equitable distribution of income and wealth must likewise be a goal reflected in a state’s economic systems. Democratic socialism admits that many workers have realized improved conditions in absolute terms through more free market-oriented arrangements, but it insists that there are additional goals not properly prioritized by unfettered capitalism left to itself:

Democratic socialism stresses the need for a specific focus on poverty relief, as a goal in and of itself.

It also claims that, even when material poverty is gradually less apparent, capitalism continues to generate significant disparities in income and wealth―a result typically leading to social discontent, envy, and unrest.

Democratic socialism also underscores that, even when a good many workers achieve financial enhancement by way of capitalism, they end up with very few coveted “positional goods” (positions usually hierarchical and power-oriented in nature), since such positions are, in free market capitalism, limited in number.

Better understanding democratic socialism helps to explain why Sanders advocates the types of policies he does. Since he believes a good part of the problem is found in unjust arrangement of economic structures, he tends to champion broad, sweeping changes, such as legislation for single-payer, universal health care, or the reinstatement of something like the Glass–Steagall Act, 1933 legislation of the U.S. Banking Act that limited commercial bank securities, activities, and affiliations within commercial banks and securities firms. Some supporters of that repeal (ultimately effected under President Bill Clinton) argue it allowed Wall Street investment banking firms space to gamble with depositors’ money held in commercial banks, helping to precipitate the financial crisis of 2008-2009. In response, Sanders believes that it is time for congressional and presidential action that would break the largest financial institutions in the country up into smaller entities (his phrase has been, “If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist”). Additionally, Sanders has expressed sympathy for workers’ cooperatives, introducing legislation to support them. He has also embraced a raise in the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.

As a viable alternative to candidates more mainstream in nature, Bernie Sanders seems particularly different. There is no way to know now if he will end up successful; we must simply wait and see.

Dr. Lindy Backues is Associate Professor of Economic Development.

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