As the media turns its attention away from the chaos of the House Republicans and towards the Democratic presidential debate, many reporters have one question at the front of their minds: is Bernie Sanders really a socialist? But in a recent appearance on Meet the Press, Sanders pushed back against this line of questioning, suggesting another one instead: are the Republican candidates really capitalists?
“Look, when one of your Republican colleagues gets on the show, do you say, ‘Are you a capitalist? Have you ever referred to them as capitalists?”
Sanders is unique amongst the presidential hopefuls in describing himself as a “democratic socialist.” Unfortunately, many Americans don’t know what that means, and may be turned off by the word “socialist.” Recent polls suggest that Americans would be even more favorable towards an atheist candidate than a socialist one. But (like most of the Republicans’ ideas) this is likely a hang-over from the Cold War era. Young people (18-29) actually appear to be more favorable towards socialism than capitalism.
When older people think of socialism, they tend to (incorrectly) associate it with totalitarianism. In fact, socialist democracies are the norm in Western Europe, and what it really involves is a progressive tax system, stronger social programs, and less control by corporate influence. These are things that our county should be striving for, whatever label you want to use. “I think that if you look at some of the real success stories in many of these countries,” said Sanders, “there’s a lot that we can learn.”
The truth is, the United States already embraces many elements of democratic socialism, including healthcare, education, labor unions, and more. These are the things that have made our country great over the years, and have protected the interests of the working people against the excesses of corporate greed.
Although the Republicans want to promote their corporate-driven agenda by striking fear of socialism into the hearts of Americans, it’s important to recognize that the biggest form of socialism in this country is the kind that benefits corporations. This comes mainly in the form of tax cuts and other subsidies. According to some studies, the U.S. spends 50% more on corporate welfare than it does on traditional social welfare – $92 billion. Where is the Republican outrage over such violations of “free market capitalism”? Where is the outrage over the vulture capitalism that Republicans push, feeding off the carcass of the American middle class and returning the scraps to the rich?
In fact, Republicans hate “socialism” when it benefits the poor and middle class, but completely embrace it when it benefits their corporate donors. When asked whether he was a socialist in 2009, President Obama responded: “It wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement, the prescription drug plan, without a source of funding. We’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles. Some of the same folks who are throwing the word ‘socialist’ around can’t say the same.”
Conservatives allege that socialism is inconsistent with freedom of choice – but the same people are happy if a small handful of corporations control all the major industries, and do so without paying taxes on their wealth. And if they get into trouble – the American taxpayers will bail them out!
Sanders’s socialist identification will surely be an issue of some interest going forward. But the moral here is simple: people who live in corporate welfare glass houses shouldn’t throw capitalist stones.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.