The excitement surrounding Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid has many on the left hoping that Americans are ready to embrace socialism. That would be something. After the Republicans renominated Richard Nixon in 1968, James Reston of the New York Times called Nixon’s victory at the convention “the greatest comeback since Lazarus.” If Sanders raises socialism from the dead, that resurrection will surely top Nixon’s.
So, just what is Sanders’ socialism? As analogs to his own program, Sanders points to the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the social democracies of northern Europe. As a liberal, I find a lot to like about both of those. But Sanders’ portrayal of democratic socialism as nothing but the New Deal is a disingenuous sleight of hand that plays on foggy historical memories. And his comparison to Nordic social democracy is equally misleading: Much of Sanders’s platform ignores the economic realities that European socialists long ago accepted.
Many people may be inclined to interpret Sanders’ calls for a revolution as just a rhetorical flourish. I think we should take it seriously. His policies are rooted in a socialist framework rather than a liberal one. And despite what Republicans may say, there’s a big difference between socialism and liberalism. Democrats and independents attracted to Sanders ought to think twice before shrugging off his self-description as a socialist.