New Yorker: Just how socialist is Bernie Sanders?

Last month, NY Times columnist Paul Krugman offered his opinion that Bernie Sanders isn’t really a socialist. “Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term,” Krugman wrote. As for why he has called himself a socialist for the past four decades, Krugman had an explanation for that: “I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie.”

Today the New Yorker interviewed Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin, who is currently writing a book about the history of the Democratic Party. Kazin said Sanders is not merely following the path of FDR but seems intent on going beyond that:

On the one hand, he’s channelling F.D.R. rather than Eugene Debs. He’s saying he’s going to complete the New Deal, and he talks about the Four Freedoms, which F.D.R. talked about in his State of the Union Address in 1941. So, in a sense, he’s going along with the social democratic tinge of the New Deal and arguing Roosevelt would be supporting Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, that F.D.R. would be wanting to strengthen labor unions and tax the rich, and that he—Sanders—is not out of the mainstream of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, he calls himself a socialist, which F.D.R. never did, because he wasn’t. The fact is also that Sanders is running in some ways against the so-called Democratic establishment and has never really become a Democrat, and he wants to transform the economy as utterly as he can. That would make him the most left-wing candidate for President that any major party has ever nominated. He’s sort of straddling a more legitimized politics—with more mainstream rhetoric within the mainstream Democratic Party—with ambitions which will clearly go beyond what any Democratic nominee has ever stood for. He seems very shrewd about that, because on the one hand, clearly, a lot of his policies are popular. On the other hand, as we know from polls, most Americans don’t like the idea of socialism…

Bernie’s background is pretty different from Roosevelt’s. Roosevelt was a rich guy, had some rich family, and didn’t want to do away with all rich people, whereas Bernie pretty much does. I mean, peacefully do away with them.

Just how far would Sanders go? Well, his plan to spend somewhere around $53 trillion in ten years to transform the U.S. into a vision of 1960s Scandinavia won’t nationalize the entire economy but it will certainly tank it. And who know, maybe that’s what Sanders wants in his heart of hearts. Sanders has a long history of praising communist regimes, but for some reason he can’t tell us when or how he changed his mind about places like the USSR, Cuba, and Nicaragua. He’s willing to tone down the rhetoric a bit to get himself elected but a genuine change of heart? There’s not much evidence of that.

All of this places Democrats in a tough spot. On the one hand, they can claim as Krugman has that Sanders isn’t really a socialist because he is only for nationalizing one major industry (health care) at the moment. On the other hand, they can unapologetically proclaim themselves socialists and hope voters under 30 carry them to victory. Regardless of what they say, the future of socialism in America will depend on a) whether Sanders is the nominee and b) how well he does in the general election.

If he loses the way George McGovern or Walter Mondale lost, well, what happened after those losses were centrists, moderates, those who call themselves New Democrats were emboldened. And they were able to make the argument that this was a radical left turn and a big mistake, and that Americans didn’t want what the Democrats were selling and so they had to go different ways. So it really depends on how badly he loses, if he loses.

There’s some evidence that Sanders really is setting his adopted party up for a big loss. We’ll have to wait just a bit longer to see what the party is going to do with him.