Bernie's Democratic Socialism speech obscured as much as it revealed

Bernie Sanders gave what was dubbed a “major speech” on Democratic Socialism this week. Vox published a transcript of the speech along with a brief introduction that summarizes his “definition of democratic socialism” as ensuring “health care, a living wage, a full education, housing, and a clean environment.” But over at the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk was disappointed with Sanders’ speech precisely because it failed to grapple with the real history of socialism which is not all flowers and sunshine:

The great differences among the movements and countries that have historically called themselves socialist also makes me skeptical about leftists who think that embracing this label is enough to explain what kind of future they want. Some members of the Democratic Socialists of America, for example, simply want to emulate the rich democracies that provide their citizens with a generous welfare state. But others seek to “abolish capitalism” or sing the praises of the Venezuelan dictatorship…

This is why I was very hopeful when Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign announced that the candidate would hold a major speech on “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism.” After years of using the term about as imprecisely as many of his followers, I hoped that Sanders would finally set out why it holds such importance to him, what role the market would play in the socialist system he promises to build, and how he can protect his political project against the Soviet risk.

I can’t say he met my expectations…

In his view, the threat of autocracy comes exclusively from the right. Just as in the 1930s, “America and the world are once again moving towards authoritarianism.” This danger is driven by “right-wing forces of oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia.” The only answer that will stave off fascism is, you guessed it, “democratic socialism.”

Thus Sanders name-checked Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini but remained silent about Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. And while he rightly decried the autocratic tendencies of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, he neglected to mention leftist autocrats such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Cuba’s Raúl Castro, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, or North Korea’s Kim Jung Un. Indeed, the only connection between socialism and autocracy that Sanders was willing to acknowledge is the one that exists in the feverish imagination of the ignorant right: He decried the “red-baiting” in which Republicans have long engaged.

Sanders talks about socialism these days as if he has always and only been a proponent of European Social Democracy, i.e. the Scandinavian model. In fact, we know that in the 1970s he was a proponent of nationalizing major industries including banks. And in the 1980s he was a fan and defender of the Sandinistas and the USSR. Today, Sanders shrugs all of that off as if it’s irrelevant. It could be, maybe, if he had the fortitude to admit that he was wrong in the past. Here’s what I wrote about this just over a week ago:

If Bernie Sanders wants to embrace European Social Democracy, which it seems he does these days, why can’t he admit he went too far as a younger man promoting the nationalization of entire industries and excusing socialist dictators. Why can’t he call out some of the more extreme voices on the left who have made it clear that Denmark and Sweden are not their goal and would still be too capitalist to suit their taste? If he really wants to put this behind him there’s a Sister Souljah moment waiting to happen with AOC. The fact that it hasn’t happened suggests he’s still taking a ‘no enemies on the left’ approach to socialism. But that’s not good enough when the potential consequences, like the ones in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are so dire.

Yascha Mounk concludes that Sanders’ speech was unserious but I think it’s much worse than that. The fact that he won’t criticize even the most extreme examples of left-wing authoritarianism tells me he’s still emotionally invested in the more radical socialism of his youth. In his heart of hearts, I think Sanders is still siding with Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez. We should take his begrudging criticism of these regimes as what they are, statements made under a kind of public duress.