He has many left-wing views, but is Bernie Sanders a socialist?
Throughout his failed bid for the presidency, Bernie Sanders gained attention for his left-wing ideology that, if ever implemented, would dramatically expand the size and scope of the federal government. To his right-wing critics, those ideas reeked of socialism; to those on the center-left, they seemed impossible to enact, though not entirely without merit. Is Bernie Sanders a socialist, an adherent to a reviled ideology, or a left-wing ideologue who stops (just) short of socialist goals?
Despite his desire to nationalize healthcare (which, yes, is a socialist policy) and more tightly regulate the economy, Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. Rather, he is a social democrat, a person who embraces the market, but wants the government to provide a strong social welfare net and play an active role in regulating multi-party transactions. Many proclaimed socialists, especially those in European countries, support social democratic policies, largely because their more radical dreams couldn’t come to fruition.
Importantly, social democracy is not socialism. In a socialist economy, the state owns the means of production and centrally planned the economy. Private property remained and some small businesses still exist, but the state controls the vast majority of the economy in hopes of limiting the accumulation of private wealth (capital) and ensuring and equitable distribution of goods. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, clearly, as he doesn’t advocate the state taking over the economy. Social democracy, Sanders’ actual ideology, keeps capital private; the private sector – not the state – control the means of production. Government spending, regulation, and taxation redistribute privately created wealth to provide baseline equality for all people.
The Scandinavian nations that people identify as socialist – and which Bernie Sanders touts as idealized socialist examples – actually practice social democracy. Denmark, for instance, has one of the freest markets in the world and its leaders bristle at Sanders’ characterization of the country as “socialist.” This “Nordic model” allows people to compete for jobs, for capital holders to develop new business and amass wealth, and for the economy to thrive sans state control. But the governments do provide a number of benefits, paid for by relatively high taxes. In others, the perfect example of social democracy.
Bernie Sanders is not a socialist (despite his numerous claims to be a democratic socialist) and misapplies the term with a surprising frequency. And that’s rather dangerous. Socialism, of course, is a failed ideology that simply cannot succeed. It invites tyrannical government control while stripping the incentives needed to create economic growth. Even its supposed democratic variety – that is, democratic socialism – has these problems: Democratic socialism seeks the same state-centralized ends but hopes to reach them through democratic maneuvers, rather than having it imposed by the government. Sanders’ popularity and misapplication of socialism makes voters – especially the young voters that comprised his coalition – view socialism favorably because they don’t understand it. By and large, proclaimed supporters of socialism mistake socialism for social democracy and so press for socialism when it’s really the latter they desire.
These mistakes enable the resurgence of true socialist adherents as their label no longer immediately turns off voters. It also distorts real policy considerations as people push for socialism without understanding the ideology and by using false examples that actually describe an offshoot of capitalism, an offshoot in which Sanders and many of his supporters believe. So, is Bernie Sanders a socialist? No: Sanders is not a socialist, but his inability to grasp the difference between (democratic) socialism and social democracy enables the mainstreaming of extremists who push an ideology that fails in theory and practice.