Millennials might be willing to embrace socialism, but the word has been a liability for self-defined democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. It was the focus of his first question at the first Democratic debate. To his credit, Sanders has not tried to distance himself from the word. Instead, on November 19 Sanders delivered a powerful, campaign-defining speech at Georgetown University outlining his vision of democratic socialism and the future of the nation.
The speech has been a long time coming. Americans’ problem with socialism is chiefly with the word itself. It was used to denote the main geopolitical boogeyman from the end of World War II until terrorism superseded it. But in terms of actual policy, from breaking up banks to the minimum wage to providing universal healthcare, a majority of Americans are more socialistic and in line with Sanders than they know.
In his speech, Sanders did a great deal to assuage American fears of the concept. He began by appealing to President Roosevelt and the New Deal – a good move given that FDR remains one of our most popular presidents.
“Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government,” Sanders said. “He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country. And that is what we have to do today. And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called ‘socialist.’”
Sanders then mentions socialist programs that are by now considered staples of American society – Social Security, the minimum wage, child labor laws, the 40-hour workweek, collective bargaining, and Medicare and Medicaid. By drawing similarities between the financial crimes of the Great Depression and the 2008 recession, Sanders invites America to look at its own history of socialist solutions and end the apprehension about trying them again.
Conservatives like to frame these programs as an attack on liberty, which is their response to any hindrance on the private concentration of wealth. To address this criticism preemptively, Sanders reiterates throughout the speech one of his most important new talking points, recycled from FDR’s proposed Second Bill of Rights: “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Freedom is relative. To the slave and the slaveholder its meaning couldn’t be more different. This relativity is also apparent between ordinary Americans and the billionaire ownership class. Sanders referenced Pope Francis, who described corporate capitalism as a “cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” It’s pretty radical for a politician to argue in favor of getting out from under that rule; most of the arguing is about how best to serve it.
But that wasn’t all his speech laid out. It served as a manifesto for Sanders’s campaign and much of progressivism. Sanders called for single-payer universal healthcare, declared emphatically that black lives matter, decried the appeal to xenophobia from candidates like Donald Trump, offered an essential history lesson of US interventionism in places like Chile and Iran, and urged for a more cooperative foreign policy and an end to the doctrine of regime change.
Most importantly, he redefined the terms of the debate. Sanders highlighted the importance of education, healthcare and family to any conception of true freedom. He invoked Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Roosevelt and Pope Francis. He repeated words like “dignity” and “economic security” on the one hand and “exhausted” on the other. He used the phrase “ruling class” to describe oligarchs like the Kochs. And he concluded on exactly the right note of populist political struggle.
In a truly vibrant democracy, every candidate would feel compelled to address Sanders’s speech. It was the most honest indictment from a major politician of where our country stands and offers by far the most substantive solutions. Unfortunately the coalition of corporations, corporate media and corporate politicians would rather focus on whatever Trump said about refugees. But Sanders’s speech and the issues it raises are what Americans must discuss if government is ever to be of any value to ordinary people again.