I spent the last week in California, which will shortly add its considerable number of voters to the Democratic primary election. I was in a house of Sanders supporters who would nonetheless, without question, support Clinton in a general election against the Republican Party’s fascist nominee, Donald Trump. Their thinking mirrors my own, but contemplating the California primary also make me think about some of the ways in which Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign has fallen short of my hopes.
A little over a year ago, Sanders launched a campaign to unseat Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee. He faced not only a candidate with a formidable grassroots and financial network, but by extension most opinion-makers in the Democratic Party who had implicitly or explicitly offered Clinton their backing. In some cases they did so out of conviction, in other cases because in what looked like an un-competitive primary it made sense to line up behind the next leader of the party and likely the country.
Sanders brought little name recognition and no national party network to the race, but has nonetheless managed to run a close second to Clinton and contribute significantly to the debate within the Democratic Party and the country at large. But I think his campaign could have done far better had he actually acted on his promise to run as a democratic socialist, or a social democrat.
Because he was never going to win over any of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Sanders had an opportunity to run on a platform that was simultaneously more radical--because of what it could offer people--and more conservative--because it didn’t embrace the fairy-tale of the benevolence of a free market.
Instead, he missed an opportunity to level substantive critiques of liberalism. The Democratic Party is a “liberal” party in the old-fashioned sense. The majority of its leaders believe in the value and enforceability of civil and political rights (protection from racial or sexual discrimination, rights to vote, and rights associated with privacy and freedoms of speech and expression) , but have in most instances shrunk from promoting social or economic rights (for example, housing, education, a basic standard of living, healthcare, etc).
Most liberals in the Democratic Party believe, broadly, that the more people who have access to those economic and social rights, the better off society will be. But because they believe--whatever fever-brained demagogues on the right say--that the state should play a comparatively modest role in structuring social and economic opportunities, liberals in the United States have to go about promoting people’s well-being in an ineffective manner.
Clinton and most liberals advocate a political approach that involves creating funds, programs, and the like designed to address the needs of people in particular categories--economic, racial, social, gendered, etc. They believe that the “free” market is basically a moral instrument for governing people’s lives and opportunities, but that after people fall through the cracks in that market floor, they should be recipients of targeted funds and programs.
The drawbacks of this relationship between individuals and communities on the one hand, and the state on the other, should be apparent. These programs and funds are provided by a broad base of taxpayers who pay generally progressive taxes (with the exception of the super rich) and whose own fortunes fluctuate over time. A social fabric comprising a large (and for many a forgettable) array of programs and funds invites criticism and divestment from and by individuals and communities of people who are not benefiting from particular programs.
Because state support for the various facets of people’s lives comes in the form of piecemeal programs and funds, many of the people who do not obviously benefit from those individual programs (which in most instances, for any given program, is likely to be the majority of the public) will grow unsupportive of those programs and support cuts to or the elimination of this patchwork of support mechanisms.
In parts of Europe, North America, and Asia among other places, a common alternative to this liberal philosophy of policymaking is social democracy. Social democracy comes in a variety of forms. Some versions have restricted themselves to constructing public funds to subsidize regulated, privately-provided services, whereas others have constructed more elaborate and robust forms of public welfare, and some have gone as far as nationalizing substantial sectors of the economy--related to healthcare, transportation and other infrastructure, key industries, etc.
What these welfare states have in common is a commitment to integrated and universal services and programs. Take the example of the Beveridge Report, a 1942 document that laid the groundwork for the modern British welfare state.
The report noted that welfare was not unknown in Britain, but that “each [social and economic] problem has been dealt with separately; with little or no reference to allied problems...organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress.” The integrated and organized welfare system that British policymakers--scarred by a Depression (and the state’s inadequate response to economic collapse), fascism, and a botched post-war settlement after the First World War--envisioned was targeting five “Evils”: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness.
Different welfare states have identified different versions of these evils, but they have in common a recognition that the piecemeal provision of services and funds and opportunities to segments of the national community is more vulnerable to popular whims than an integrated system. A better-integrated and more organized welfare “system” not only provides an array of services, opportunities, and support to all members of the public--free or subsidized at the point of entry, and funded by progressive taxation. It also creates a set of institutions that people of different backgrounds and “needs” experience in a common fashion and come to identify with in a way that is impossible with the piecemeal programs of the liberal state.
These two versions of the state--liberal and social democratic--come to function in very different ways. The former is predicated on leaping, belatedly to the assistance of people who crash through a perpetually patchy social safety net. The latter is based on the logic of creating a higher, stronger floor and doing as much as possible to prevent the collapse of regions, communities, or classes.
Social democracy is no panacea, and does not offer some “final” way out of politics. In Europe it faces challenges from shifting demographics, from fascist parties, from resurgent liberals, and from the continent’s racism. But it is a more durable, just, and logical politics that can create a more equal, prosperous, and secure society than the liberalism that has long defined politics and economics in the U.S.
Sanders should have advance some of these arguments. And indeed, he promised that his campaign would represent a battle of ideas. But over time, the centrality of those ideas has faded (witness that more Clinton supporters than Sanders supporters support more robust funding of the public sector), and Sanders’ campaign has come to revolve around “anti-establishment” rhetoric, and his own version of policy by patchwork.
His criticisms of Clinton and the Democratic Party grew louder even as his alternatives became fuzzier. He continues to rally disaffected voters, but absent a big, serious argument about social democratic policy, his campaign has absolved those voters of the responsibility of having the serious conversation about policy that Sanders promised.
In the area of foreign policy, where Hillary Clinton represents a radical, violent, and frankly insane consensus (one endorsed and expanded upon by Donald Trump), Sanders proved fatally lazy, declining to articulate the obvious relationship between social democratic philosophy at home and abroad.
Sanders’ failures in these various arenas have been deeply disappointing, not least because his failure to advance a coherent argument about the failings of liberal policy and ideology has left the Democratic Party on the verge of nominating a candidate dogged by controversy (mostly in the form of imagined scandals, but with significant and easily-preventable moral failings), with a misplaced sympathy for the powerful (whether defending Wall Street against Occupy critics or dictators against Arab Spring revolutionaries), and a spectacular record of violent and costly misjudgment in the arena of foreign policy.
I have zero doubt that Hillary Clinton would be a less dangerous president than Donald Trump, and that people would be far safer and better off with her as president. Her tepid liberalism would represent stagnation, but not the savage assault on rights, regulations, and human life that Donald Trump threatens daily.
But it is sad that a candidate who had and has my support, and who promised to offer something substantially different to voters, let his supporters, the public, and the country down. I hope that Sanders outpaces Clinton in the remaining primaries and does everything he can--whether as the nominee or otherwise--to force the Democratic Party to face up to its weaknesses.
But the project of pursuing a social democratic framework for politics and policies will have to be a project for a small but growing number of elected representatives and for voters who share the hope of creating a more fair, equal, and just society.