Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders: Socialism = Cops

Telling the truth?


Some left-wingers sometimes mock some right-wingers for likening every government program to socialism.

Not Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the leading Democratic presidential candidate not named Clinton. He embraces the idea that socialism is just a word for government, which is just a word for the things we do together.

It's the strategy he plans on using to sell his vague idea of "democratic socialism" to American voters. Up to now, Sanders' explanations have largely involved pointing to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark, which are far more socialist in the minds of American left-wingers than they are in the real world.

But as Sanders comes tantalizingly close to being within the margin of error of Hillary Clinton in the polls, he's decided he needs to push democratic socialism like he means it. Sanders' plan is to explain that socialism consists of things like public libraries, fire departments, and police departments.

The New York Times reports:

"When you go to your public library, when you call your Fire Department or the Police Department, what do you think you're calling?" Mr. Sanders said. "These are socialist institutions."

While Mr. Sanders may have a point, he drew some blank stares from liberals in the audience who are probably used to hearing the police described with other terms. He didn't dwell on the point, veering back to his concern about social safety nets.

Instead of wallowing in their own ignorance, liberals should face the fact that police departments are, if not exactly socialist institutions, certainly institutions that, in a democratic society like America's, are more or less representations and embodiments of the popular will. The implications of that are not just theoretical. Cops engage in police brutality in large part because "we" want them to. The cops who killed Eric Garner, for example, did so because they were ordered by their superiors to crack down on loose cigarette sellers, who threaten not corporate profits (a loose cigarette has already been purchased, at some point, from the tobacco company) but government revenue (a loose cigarette evades local taxation). Those superiors, in turn, ordered cops to crack down on loose cigarette sellers because that's what New York's democratic government wanted.

After Garner was killed and several other local incidents of non-fatal police brutality over petty law enforcement issues got a lot of press, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) insisted he would continue to order police to vigorously enforce such laws. "A violation of the law is a violation of the law," the mayor said, illustrating why law enforcement, when met with resistance, can become deadly.

Bill Bratton, the police commissioner, made the same point Sanders did, that his liberal supporters are so uncomfortable with, that the police are a democratic institution. "It's important that when an officer does approach you to correct your behavior, that you respect them," said Bratton. "That's what democracy is all about."

It is. And while it may be fashionable today to blame the policies that lead to excessive police brutality on things like white supremacy, it would be far more productive, and lead to real harm reduction, to engage police brutality as a true expression of democracy, and to correct our expectations of government.

Sanders' tactic, however, shouldn't be surprising. He learned to be an ally of cops, to treat them as part of the "labor" class not, say, an apparatus of the ruling class, decades ago. When Sanders is asked about criminal justice and moves to economic issues, it's not just that he's a one-note pony but that he understands the importance of police unions in creating "good jobs," even if they come at the expense of systematically trampling on the rights of Americans, with a particular focus on the poor and marginalized.