Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders: A Democratic Socialist Is Someone Who Looks to Scandinavia, Things Are Getting Worse, Only Government Can Make Them Better

Sanders wants people mobilized, but is he really interested in what they want?


Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the self-described "democratic socialist" running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, had a curious answer to the first question in a long interview with Ezra Klein at, about what it means to be a socialist. "What it means is that one takes a hard look at countries around the world who have successful records in fighting and implementing programs for the middle class and working families," Sanders responded. "When you do that, you automatically go to countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and other countries that have had labor governments or social democratic governments." Those countries (combined population: 26 million), Sanders says, have cheaper healthcare, free education, better schools, and less income inequality, therefore he's a democratic socialist.

Sanders keeps returning to those points, the "rights of all people" to free healthcare and education, but is never asked to articulate how government distribution of such "rights" would work. While the American left has elevated the welfare states of Nordic countries to mythic proportions, the people there have been giving those same welfare states the cold shoulder. Even the comparison on public education is deceptive—teachers unions in places like Finland tend to not resist reform and are more tethered to the fiscal health of the school systems in which they work than their American counterparts.

Sanders keeps returning to the point of "mobilizing" millions of Americans for a "progressive agenda," but it just sounds like your typical GOTV operation:

That's a great question. In terms of my campaign, on July 29 we will be holding, as I understand it, at least 1,000 organizing meetings simultaneously all over this country involving 20,000 or 30,000 people. What we will be urging our supporters to do is to go out, knock on doors, register the people to vote, talk about the important issues facing our country in a way that the media very often does not. Talk to our Republican friends and neighbors and ask them why they are voting for candidates who are prepared to send their jobs to China, deny their kids the ability to have health care or get a higher education, engage people in that discussion.

Sanders is running a political campaign, one that appears disciplined to focus on one message—rich people owe poor people. What kind of discussion does he expect? Progressives in power have found out the hard way that "regular people" don't accept their claims to care about the poor uncritically. At the start of his term as mayor of New York City, for example, progressive hero Bill de Blasio tried to go after charter schools, one of those policies progressives like de Blasio and Sanders can tie to their favorite billionaire bogeymen. He failed because of popular resistance. Parents like to have the choice to send their children to better schools, and aren't as willing to sacrifice their children's educational and future outcomes for the sake of shaky ideological commitments pushed by progressives.

I suspect this is why Sanders has largely avoided addressing the growing movement toward criminal justice and police reform. Asked about racism, Sanders said of course it existed, and so the working class had to be rebuilt. And although he waxes poetical about the power of mass movements, he didn't mention Black Lives Matter in the interview while talking about the power of popular movements on issues like gay marriage and higher minimum wage laws. At the end of the day, substantive police reforms are impossible without targeting police unions. The privileges extended to police officers are baked into the law by unions, which create rules that protect bad actors. Mass attention to individual instances of police brutality may win some measure of accountability at the moment, but it's only sustained attention to the policies that breed police brutality that can create an environment of accountability and less police violence. In the relationship between police officers and minority communities, the role exploitation of such communities played in "building a middle class" becomes too apparent. In the same way as a racist white cop or a sociopath of any color can manage to draw a regular paycheck and benefits while failing to serve and protect the community he's sent into, other public institutions, like schools and jails, have also proved to be "middle class" jobs programs operating at the expense of exploited communities.

It's obviously not a conversation Sanders wants to have. But the rhetoric about rich vs. poor he's been using since the Rockefellers were the bogeymen billionaires of the moment has worked for him so far because it's easier, politically, to promise people more stuff than to point to how things have gotten better and how less government intervention in the affairs of free people, not more, might make things better still. Despite his commitment to the lines, Sanders compassion for the poor isn't actually genuine. Ezra Klein pushed Sanders on the idea that when it comes to global income inequality the U.S. is at the top of the equation, and that open borders and lower-level jobs moving overseas play an important role in lifting the global poor out of poverty—Sanders said he's weighed his obligations and decided the people of Vermont (and, presumably, of the U.S. if he's elected president) come first. So how could he be interested in engaging in an honest discussion about, say, how free market forces work to alleviate poverty on a global scale? After all, there are billionaires to blame.