That the Democrats’ two evenings of dueling oratory snippets this week are called “debates” validates Finley Peter Dunne’s prediction that “when we Americans are through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.” Already a linguistic casualty of the campaign is the noun “socialism.” So, quickly, before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign sinks, like darling Clementine, beneath the foaming brine, consider his struggle to convince Americans that socialism deserves to be the wave of their future.
One European explanation of America’s puzzling (to many European intellectuals) resistance to socialism was given in 1906 by the German economist Werner Sombart: “All the socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.”
Recently, however, Sanders delivered a Washington speech explaining, in effect, that socialism is as American as a piece of frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese. Doing so, however, he demonstrated that socialism is a classification that no longer classifies.
Sanders’ socialism turns out to be a tweaked New Deal. He began, of course, by saying that the nation is in “a defining and pivotal moment.” Speechwriters actually get paid for such bromides; capitalist America remains a land of opportunity even for the untalented. What Sanders then offered as forward-looking socialism was a warmed-over version of what President Franklin Roosevelt advocated 75 years ago.
In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR called for “rights” to “useful” jobs, “good” education, “adequate” food and clothing and recreation, a “decent” living for farmers, a “decent” home, “adequate” medical care, “adequate” protection in old age. Details, such as how to define the adjectives and how to pay for what the nouns denote, were for another day. Sanders’ agenda for “completion” of FDR’s New Deal is a right to a “decent” job, “quality” health care, “complete” education, “affordable” housing, a “clean” environment, a “secure” retirement. Details later.
Sanders says “what I mean by democratic socialism” is “economic rights are human rights.” Really. That’s it. FDR said “necessitous men are not free men,” implying that government can and should remove necessity from the human story. Sanders, FDR’s unimaginative echo, presumably agrees.
Sanders loathes billionaires and loves Sweden, which has more billionaires per capita than America has. Economist Deirdre McCloskey, writing in National Review, notes that “none of Sweden’s manufacturing or extractive industries has even been socialized.” And “when Saab Autos began its descent into bankruptcy,” the government let it go, unlike the U.S government bailing out GM and Chrysler (for a second time) after 2008. McCloskey quotes a Swedish diplomat: “In many fields, we have more private ownership compared to other European countries, and to America. About 80% of all new schools are privately run, as are the railroads and the subway system.”
The morning after Sanders’ speech, The New York Times reported something momentous: “Democratic socialism has become a major force in American political life.” This is amazing, considering that it was never more than a negligible force when capitalism seemed to be in a perhaps terminal crisis: In 1932, three years into the Depression, with the unemployment rate at 23.6% and the GDP 25.7% smaller than in 1929, as this column previously noted, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, received fewer votes (884,885) than its 1920 candidate Eugene Debs received (913,693) while he was imprisoned by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
A young adult — a member of the demographic supposedly most sympathetic to socialism — who attended Sanders’ exegesis of socialism told the Times: “In America we embrace a lot of socialist policies already, like public education and parks.” This understanding of socialism as any government provision of public goods puts Horace Mann (1796-1859), an advocate of public education, and Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), designer of New York City’s Central Park, in the socialist pantheon with their contemporaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Many young people who supposedly are making socialism a “major force” think it is sociability: everyone being nice to everyone.
Sen. Elizabeth (“I have a plan for that”) Warren, D-Mass., who describes herself as a “capitalist to my bones,” is a more authentic socialist than Sanders because she has more granular plans for government power (aka politics) to supplant market forces in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. So she, even more than the other participants in this week’s Democrats’ presidential scrums, would as president give the nation a helpful, if inadvertent, tutorial about this axiom: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
George Will writes on politics, law and social character. He began writing for The Washington Post in 1974. He is a contributor for Fox News, a Pulitzer Prize recipient and is the author of 12 books.