Not All Democrats Are the Same

The Republican strategy for the 2020 presidential election is obvious: Tar all Democrats with the label “socialist.” It will not work for two reasons: One, the public does not view contemporary American socialists as scary; and two, not all Democrats agree on everything. Most Democrats are not socialists, but, rather, progressive reformers. 

Donald Trump delivering the State of the Union Address, February 6, 2019.

A Republican smear campaign already is underway. The modern GOP is bereft of ideas and has abandoned the precepts of conservatism. That leaves only insults and attacks as the party’s campaign strategy. Labelling Democrats as socialists began with President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address. “Tonight,” the president said, “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”  Trump greeted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign launch with a caustic tweet: “Crazy Bernie just entered the race. I wish him well!” And, Trump’s campaign press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, offered Sanders a backhanded compliment: “Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism.”

McEnany may be engaging in good campaign tactics, but she is wrong. Sanders is the only avowed socialist running for president — at least among the prominent candidates of the major parties — and he categorizes himself as an independent. Senator Kamala Harris of California — who made a splash when she announced for the presidency — says pointedly: “I am not a democratic socialist.” 

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debating during the 2016 presidential race.

Sanders’ dynamic 2016 presidential bid — when he nearly wrested the nomination from Hillary Clinton, the party establishment’s preferred candidate — helped move the Democratic Party to the left. Now, virtually all Democrats favor some form of universal health coverage and a vigorous attack on climate change, even if they shy away from the term, “The Green New Deal.” Even centrists like Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — who prefers to move incrementally on healthcare — favors the ultimate goal of coverage for everyone, and she describes the Green New Deal as “aspirational,” while questioning specifics. If Joe Biden enters the race, the former vice president will join Klobuchar on the center-left of the Democratic Party.

Coffee entrepreneur Howard Schultz’s possible independent bid for the presidency is a sign the Democratic Party has become more radical. Schultz, a “lifelong Democrat” who describes himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, is pondering a third-party run because he believes the Democratic Party is too progressive. 

Saying the Democratic Party has moved to the left is not the same as saying all Democrats are democratic socialists. Only Sanders uses the term. “What democratic socialists want is closer to what exists in Scandinavia or Iceland, expanding what Europeans talk about — a large welfare state,” says Michael Kazin, a historian and former member of Students for a Democratic Society, a democratic socialist organization of the 1960s. The Democratic Socialists of America’s web page says, “Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically — to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.“ The ultimate goal is the end of capitalism, though the specifics of how that would transpire are vague. 

Elizabeth Warren announcing her candidacy for president, February 9, 2019.

Next to Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is the most radical candidate. An examination of the ideological differences between Warren and Sanders illustrates the vast array of thought among Democrats. Though the two New England senators agree on many issues, there is a fundamental difference between them. Unlike Sanders, Warren is a champion of the capitalist system. “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets,” Warren says. Warren is an old-fashioned progressive regulator, a politician who believes capitalism works best when competition is fair. Sanders thinks capitalism is unjust and must be changed radically.

Eugene Debs, American socialist and labor leader.

Sanders and Warren have roots in different branches of American radicalism. Sanders comes from the Eugene Debs tradition of American socialism. Debs sought — first through the labor movement and then as the most prominent member of the Socialist Party of America — to create a “cooperative commonwealth” in which industry would be controlled democratically and workers would receive a fair share for their labor. He was not an advocate of revolution, believing instead that change could be achieved through voting, labor action, and class unity. Debs developed his radical worldview through his own experience. He left school at the age of fourteen, working for many years at low pay in dangerous jobs on the nation’s railroads. 

Louis Brandeis

Warren identifies with the left wing of progressive liberal thought exemplified by Louis Brandeis and other progressives of the early 20th century. Brandeis, known as the “people’s attorney,” used his skills as a lawyer to counter the power and corruption of big corporations. He supported small businesses and urged reform and regulation of capitalism to forestall socialism. As he told Woodrow Wilson during the 1912 presidential campaign, “The law we want to enforce is the law of competition.” Wilson rewarded Brandeis for his advice by appointing him in 1916 as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice.  

Warren’s study of bankruptcy law led to her advocacy of liberal measures to aid victims of unfair lending practices. Like Brandeis before her, she thought a regulatory agency was needed to protect consumers from the trickery of big banks. Sanders, like Debs, does not believe in such piecemeal reforms. Sanders sees a system that exploits workers and needs radical change, and he stresses ending the exploitation of labor: Long hours, low wages, and unfeeling and uncaring bosses.

In the short run, the differences between Sanders and Warren are not that great. Both will run on Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal. Both will attack burgeoning economic inequality through higher taxes and programs to help the middle class. And, Democrats will benefit from a healthy debate among their many and differing candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination. 

Posted February 22, 2019

 

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