Senator Bernie Sanders has recently declared his intention to make a speech explaining democratic socialism—the ideological and policy framework underpinning his presidential campaign—to an American public conditioned to see anything containing the word “socialism” as a threat to the country’s way of life. Sanders’ speech on Thursday will be a welcome addition to what has become a stale political debate over the past decades, hemmed in by the policy dogmas associated with unchecked capitalism and its mythical “free market”.
In the course of his campaign, Sanders has invoked other countries that he argues practice forms of “democratic socialism,” including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Central to his case has been the argument that far from being a dangerous pipe-dream, democratic socialism represents a viable political formation, which exists in other countries.
Noted U.S. historian Eric Foner, whose work has involved recapturing long-hidden voices in U.S. history, had some advice for Sanders as to how to discuss democratic socialism. He encouraged the Senator to drop Denmark and “embrace our own American radical tradition…talk about our radical forebears here in the United States.” Foner lists the likes of Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley and the various parties that have served as institutional vehicles for radical political advancement in the United States.
Foner is on to something, inasmuch as Americans tend to be xenophobic, and balk at the idea that they can learn something from other parts of the world. From a rhetorical standpoint, there is probably value in calling attention to this tradition of radical or socialist thought in the United States.
But the approach that Foner advocates misses one crucial thing. Sanders’ goal as a presidential aspirant is to convince the public not simply that they can relate to the ideology ostensibly at the heart of his campaign—and I would argue that what Sanders is actually advocating is a form of moderate social democracy—but that this is a system of organizing polities, economies, and societies which can work and has worked.
For this reason, it is both helpful and important to be able to invoke those societies—no matter the ways they might differ in size or demographics or in political structure from the United States—which have used different, and to some eyes radical, political principles in order to create a society that is more equal, more just, more free than our own. Sanders needs to be able to convince people of the fact that social welfare doesn’t kill jobs, destroy industry, squash innovation, or make automatons of people.
So while invoking radicals of the American past who helped our country to make progress in combatting social and economic inequality is a good thing, it is equally if not more important to explain how as a broad ideology, that would serve as the basis for policymaking in a Sanders Administration, democratic socialism is something practical and workable that has yielded tremendous benefits for a great many people in other parts of the world.