Will Bernie Sanders be America’s first socialist president?


Bernie Sanders is not the first socialist to run for President of the United States. He is not even the first socialist to do so with mass support.

To understand the Sanders campaign, it is appropriate to begin by placing it in historical perspective and that means, inevitably, starting with Eugene V. Debs — a man whose photo adorns Sanders’ office wall.

More than a century ago, in the first decade of the twentieth century, when socialist parties were everywhere on the rise, few spoke about “American exceptionalism”. The Socialist Party in the United States, which emerged as a full-blown, national political party in the years leading up to the first world war, followed the example set by socialist, social democratic and labour parties in many other countries. It grew and grew.

If anything, what distinguished the American Socialists from many other socialist parties was its exceptionally rapid growth. In 1900, Debs – a well known trade union leader – won only about 88,000 votes, less than one percent of the votes cast. The Prohibition Party, which advocated the banning of the sale of alcohol, received more than double his total. Both placed far behind the mainstream Democrats and Republicans.

But four years later, as head of the newly-formed Socialist Party, Debs’ vote total increased to over 400,000 – a full three percent of the votes cast. It took another eight years for the Socialist vote to increase again, but by 1912 the Socialists were becoming serious contenders, now winning 900,000 votes or about six percent of the total.

And it was not only in presidential elections that the Socialists seemed to going from strength to strength. Their party elected members of Congress, mayors of cities and towns, state legislators and city council members across the country. They published hundred of newspapers and magazines in all the languages then spoken across the US. The most popular of these, The Appeal to Reason, a weekly published in Kansas, had a circulation of well over 500,000.

Though hugely popular in coastal cities like New York, and particularly among immigrant populations, the Socialists were also strong in the American heartland. Oklahoma, for example, had a higher level of support for the Socialists than anywhere else.

America was not then in any sense “exceptional.” Workers and farmers in their hundreds of thousands voted for Socialist candidates, read Socialist newspapers and expected eventually to see a Socialist president.

But in the century that has followed, much of that tradition has been forgotten. That may explain why the idea that a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders can be a serious contender for the presidency seems strange to many. It would not have seemed strange in Debs’ time.

American Socialism as an independent political force peaked in 1920, just after the end of the first world war, when Debs – running as a federal prisoner, jailed for his outspoken opposition to that war – won nearly a million votes in the presidential election.

From then on, it was fairly steadily downhill. The Socialists were defeated by a combination of political repression on the one hand, and the Democrats (under Roosevelt) embracing much of their reformist program on the other. Even at the peak of the Depression, they could not rise to what the party had been able to achieve only a few years earlier.

The low point for the American Left was the 1950s, when all its various groups, social democrats, Stalinists, and Trotskyists, could barely fill a hall. It was then that the leader of one of the smallest of those groups, Max Shachtman, a key figure in the Trotskyist movement, suggested that the socialists try something different.

It was called “realignment” and Shachtman took his band of Marxists into what remained of Debs’ Socialist Party and tried to persuade them to change course. What Shachtman had in mind was that the Socialists, who could no longer campaign as an independent party, should enter the Democratic Party and shift it to the left.

It took Shachtman a decade to win over the Socialists to his view, and his protege, author and social critic Michael Harrington, led a series of small groups over the next couple of decades in an effort to see if the idea would work. A high point came in 1979, when Harrington’s group (by now called the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee) debated whether to run Harrington as a Democratic candidate in the 1980 election, to challenge then-president Jimmy Carter.

In the end, Harrington chose not to run, but his organization, now rebranded as Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), continued on the course set out by Max Shachtman back in the 1950s. DSA recruited a number of prominent Democratic Party politicians to the cause, and there were once again self-described socialists in Congress and elsewhere. One of the politicians they became close to was Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who years earlier had rejected the idea of joining with the Democrats.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a full hundred years after the “golden age” of the Socialist Party, two things combined in America to make a Debs-style presidential run again possible.

The first was the extraordinary economic crisis that broke in 2008. The other was the fact that the cold war had ended by 1989, and a generation had grown up in America for whom “socialism” was no longer a scare word.

The second of these is not necessarily good news, as it means that there remains little collective memory on the American left of the horrors of “socialist” totalitarianism. The same crowds of cheering young voters lining up to support Bernie Sanders today probably know very little of the debates and disagreements that took place over many decades. Most would certainly be hard pressed to say what the difference is between a “socialist” and a “communist”.

Many of them may not be clear why Sanders emphatically uses the term “democratic socialist” to describe himself – and why the “democratic” prefix is essential. And they probably won’t understand why, when asked to point to a model of what he means by socialism, Bernie Sanders skips over Castro’s Cuba, a perennial favorite on the left, and talks instead about Scandinavia. When asked to describe his first brush with socialism back in the 1960s, he doesn’t talk about Mao or Che, but instead refers to his short time on a kibbutz in Israel.

When Bernie Sanders announced in mid-2015 that he would run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, he was continuing the tradition of Debs, Harrington and Shachtman. He was also distancing himself from another, darker tradition on the American Left – the tradition of the Communist Party.

For this reason, his embrace of “democratic” socialism and a Scandinavian model, plus his commitment to run as a Democrat rather than an independent, he has managed to alienate several American socialist groups. He has also frustrated some “pro-Palestinian” activists by his firm support for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, even while being fiercely critical of the current Israeli government.

While the organization that Harrington founded, DSA, has embraced the Sanders campaign, other, smaller groups have distanced themselves from him.

The more important criticism making the rounds concerns Sanders’ choice to run as a Democrat rather than as an independent. This criticism comes, sometimes, from more mainstream leftists. They point to Ralph Nader’s campaigns as a left independent, particularly in 2000, when he won 2.9 million votes. This was triple the number of votes Debs ever won, but as the electorate had grown larger, it was less than half of Debs’ success in 1912, when he captured six percent of the votes.

One difference between Sanders and Nader is that Sanders is a mainstream social democrat who would be at home in any Western European socialist or labour party, whereas Nader is a bit of a “loose cannon”. Nader aimed to mobilize a protest movement, as he had been doing for decades in defense of consumer rights and other issues. Sanders, on the other hand, is not a protest leader. He is a politician. And politics is about power. Bernie Sanders has been in this campaign, from the beginning, with the intention of winning.

Before discussing Sanders’ chances of reaching the White House, it’s worth having a closer look at his policies, what he stands for. He calls for nothing short of a “political revolution” that “takes on the billionaire class”. But bombastic rhetoric aside, just how radical is Bernie Sanders?

In the tradition of European social democracy, Sanders has called for a series of policies which would not only be at home in the British Labour Party or the German SPD, but would in fact have once been standard fare for the Democrats, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s.

He’s focussed on reducing the influence of wealthy businessmen, who he calls “the billionaire class”, over American politics. Sanders argues that the country is less and less of a democracy if money can buy power, and warns that unless laws are changed and campaign finances are cleaned up, America runs the risk of becoming an oligarchy.

Toward that end, he has refused to take money from what are called “Super PACS”, organizations which allow fabulously wealthy individuals to spent millions of dollars on supporting their favorite candidates.

He’s made reducing inequality the central plank in his platform, and advocates a range of measures to begin to close the gaps that have turned America into one of the most unequal societies in the industrialized world.

Among his proposals are free university education in state schools, funded by higher taxes on corporations and investors.

He is also a strong advocate of single-payer health care, a system of public health that will be familiar to citizens of most modern democratic societies, but one which is utterly foreign to Americans.

He supports massive government investment in the economy to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure as well as provide jobs and give people a step up out of poverty.

He has the strongest position of any candidate on climate change issues. (Most of the Republicans are climate change “skeptics” in any event.)

Though he freely accepts the label of “democratic socialist” the actual measures he advocates differ little from those advocated by progressive Democrats over the years. Back in 2008, when Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Senator John Edwards also ran a vigorous campaign that pushed for many of the changes Sanders advocates now.

Going back a generation or so, the ideas of the last liberal Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, who pushed the welfare state as far as it could go in the 1960s, offer a vision quite similar to what Sanders wants today.

What makes Sanders seem so unusually left-wing is not that he’s moved in a more radical direction, but that the Democratic Party has been taken over in recent years by pro-corporate Democrats like the Clintons. Contrasted with them, Sanders does indeed seem to be a modern-day version of Debs.

The question is – can Sanders do what Debs could not? Can he capture the Democratic nomination and win the presidency in 2016?

And if he does, is there any chance that he can implement his ambitious program to transform America? Is electing him President in itself enough to cause the “political revolution” he talks about?

When Sanders first announced in the spring of 2015 that he would challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, it was widely assumed that he would be little more than a fringe candidate.

Initial polls confirmed that view. Sanders was not well know outside of his native Vermont while Clinton was, and still is, a media superstar – a former First Lady, Senator, Presidential candidate and Secretary of State.

Among progressive Democrats, Sanders was respected and well-liked, but he was not anyone’s favorite candidate. Instead, most left Democrats were keen to pressure Senator Elizabeth Warren to run. When Warren made clear that she had no interest in becoming a candidate, interest in Sanders began to soar.

As I write these words in the Autumn of 2015, it now seems possible that Sanders will beat Clinton in several of the early primary states (New Hampshire and Iowa) where he already has a significant poll lead. He continues to hold enormous rallies, speaking to enthusiastic crowds, while the Clinton campaign struggles to get beyond defending the former Secretary of State over the scandal of her private email server.

What was once considered unthinkable – a cranky, 74-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont defeating Hillary Clinton – has now become possible. Which means that the next question has to be, if he gets the Democratic nomination, can he win the election in November 2016?

In a sense, beating Hillary Clinton, who is a household name, widely respected, with a huge campaign war chest donated by her millionaire supporters, was the hard part. Clinton is a formidable opponent.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have had a nomination fight that so far seems more like a circus freak show than politics. Throughout the summer of 2015, the freakiest of all the Republicans, the one most likely to lead the party to its greatest defeat since 1964, is Donald Trump. If Trump wins the nomination, he will be easily beaten by Clinton, Sanders or any other reasonable candidate the Democrats put up.

Even if it’s not Trump, there is not a single Republican running who poses a serious threat to the Democrats continuing to occupy the White House when the Obama family moves out in January 2017.

In other words, Bernie Sanders may beat Clinton for the nomination, and if he does so, unless things radically change in the next year, he is likely to beat the Republicans in the November election.

Which is great news, except for one thing. The President of the United States holds a great deal of power. But he does not have the power to enact legislation. That job is reserved for the two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Nearly all the key planks in the Sanders platform – campaign finance reform, free university education, a federal jobs program to rebuild the country – require Congressional approval.

As I write these words, Bernie Sanders is the only democratic socialist holding office in Washington. He has the support of few other members of Congress in his race for office. If elected, he may find himself sitting in the Oval Office, seemingly the most powerful individual on the planet, but unable to do any of the things he says he wants to do.

This was not an issue Debs grappled with in his day. He was the head of a large, well-organized and powerful political party. That party was already winning Congressional seats, seats in state legislatures, and mayoral races. If Debs had ever had the chance to win the Presidency, it would have happened as part of a broader Socialist electoral victory.

But Bernie Sanders is not heading up a political party of Socialists. He’s a loner, an outcast, running alone to change the world.

“Political revolutions” are not made this way.

Sanders is right to run as a Democrat, because that is the only route to the White House. Unlike Ralph Nader in 2000, Sanders aims to capture political power, to win, as the only way to actually change people’s lives. He’s right to do so.

The assumption that he is making is that if he manages to defeat Clinton and then win the Presidency, it will be part of some kind of progressive tsunami that will sweep before it the old, pro-corporate Democratic Party and replace its members of the Senate and House of Representatives with people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

And that somehow, as part of the long campaign for the presidency, a more permanent organization campaigning for Sanders’ version of democratic socialism will emerge. It won’t be the old Socialist Party, but it will play the role of Debs’ party a century ago. Groups like DSA, which is a direct descendant of the Socialists, will surely play a role in such a new formation.

It is hard to see how any of this will happen between now and November 2016. Even if Sanders wins, a new, well-organized American Left is unlikely to emerge overnight. The large crowds of cheering Sanders backers, with their infectious enthusiasm and their “#feelthebern” placards, are no substitute for genuine organizations.

And this is the problem.

Bernie Sanders stepped into a political vacuum. His candidacy fills a historical need.

In nearly every other industrialized country, there has traditionally been a party that more-or-less represented the interests of working people. Even Canada, so much like the USA in so many ways, has long had a democratic socialist party of its own, with roots in the trade unions (and among farmers).

But “American exceptionalism”, which no one ever talked about when Debs and the Socialists were riding high, has been the American reality for nearly a century now. In elections where the two choices are both proponents of the “free market”, where neither has ever dared to use words like “class” or “socialism”, there has long been something missing.

With the Cold War now a distant memory, and with American capitalism in steep decline, it seems like the time is ripe for political leaders to offer the kind of alternative once represented by Debs and his party. Bernie Sanders has stepped into that role.

Unfortunately, the other things needed – a mass popular movement for change, local organizations, candidates for Congress who share his radical views – do not yet seem to be there.

Sanders is racing ahead, possibly toward victory, but the country hasn’t yet caught up with him yet. If in November 2016 he pulls off what once seemed impossible, and is elected the 45th president of the United States, he may find that the real work of rebuilding a socialist left in America has just begun.