Thoughts on Bernie Sanders’s Democratic Socialism and the Primary

November 20, 2015

Bernie Sanders gave a major speech yesterday outlining his definition of democratic socialism and how it relates to both his candidacy and American history. In doing so, he also described an expansive vision of economic security and fairness. The speech is important because it shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of left-liberalism at this moment, both through what it describes and, more interesting, what it doesn’t. It also clarifies how he can better contrast with Hillary Clinton on policy.

Here are eight random thoughts about the speech.

1. American History: I’m happy to see Sanders ground his politics and what he wants to do as the continuation of a proud American tradition, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Extra credit for a reference to the Second Bill of Rights speech by Roosevelt.

Most Americans don’t have a passport, and those who do don’t go to Scandinavia. I’ve enjoyed the times I’ve been to Scandinavia, but the first impression is that it’s cold and a little depressing. As a general campaign approach, grounding the project in the liberal stuff Americans love—Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage—is a smarter move than comparing the U.S. to foreign countries.

2. The L Word: Have conservatives so villified the word “liberal” that it’s easier to rehabilitate “socialist” than bring back the L word? As Ned Resnikoff and others have pointed out, everything in the speech can be found on the left flank of ordinary liberals or, ahem, “progressives.” Or the more accurate term “social democracy.” The core stuff is centered around social insurance, wages, and, what gives it its edge in the debate, keeping the rich and powerful in check. There are odd moments where he says “almost everything [FDR] proposed was called ‘socialist,’” and it’s not clear if it is meant to be true or a punchline.

Socialism is a slippery term, but It’s not clear what advantages, analytically or otherwise, are gained by categorizing this project as socialist—especially given that the word has a real electoral downside to it.

For 3-6, Sanders has a pretty expansive left-liberal vision for his policy agenda, so what is missing from it is as telling as what is in it.

3. ACA AWOL: One thing that strikes me is how absent Obamacare is from the policy debates between Clinton and Sanders. Sanders throws a dig at the Affordable Care Act without mentioning it by name by referencing the high deductibles many people pay. This is a clear reference to how bronze plans are putting stress on poor people. Yet Sanders’s plan is to toss the ACA out and go for Medicare for All.

Prescription drugs aside, Sanders has not talked about building on the ACA. No putting a public option in the exchanges, expanding the subsidies, tightening the terms on which plans in the exchanges are offered, price controls, Medicare buy-in, or anything else. This is a problem given that the law is going to face challenges in the years ahead to go along with its successes. It may be that there’s no fixing it outside tossing it and moving to single payer, but if that’s the case, we may just end up tossing it and getting a far worse outcome instead.

(This is similar to the dynamics over financial reform, where Sanders is less interested in building up through Dodd-Frank than he is in going straight after the size and business lines of the biggest banks. However, a deep bench of supplemental reform for Dodd-Frank has been built—one that Clinton is drawing on.)

4. Welfare As We Knew It: Sanders has hit Clinton over her support for welfare reform, recently saying, “I think that history will suggest that that legislation has not worked terribly well” and that the whole approach was “what Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ was all about.”

But what jumps out at me is how some sort of income support for children not tied to work isn’t part of the discussion at all. It’s not just that nobody is proposing bringing back “welfare as we knew it.” It’s that the arguments in favor of basic child benefits, which are being pushed in other countries, aren’t even on the table.

It just happened in Canada. Justin Trudeau was elected on a platform that included “the Canada Child Benefit (CCB): one fair, tax-free monthly child benefit that puts more money back in the pockets of the middle class and those working hard to join it.” There’s no equivalent in the Democratic primary, even though the candidates are pushing each other to the left.

There are important things being pushed, like paid time off and universal preschool, and Sanders appears to be in the liberal consensus on these issues, following plans developed by Senator Patty Murray and Kirsten Gillibrand. But a child benefit is missing, and that’s telling about where the politics are right now.

5. Two Visions of Left-Liberalism: Let’s say there are two agendas for left-liberalism right now. Let’s call the first, say, Rewrite the Rules. (Now available in hardcover and audiobook!) There the goal is to rebalance the basic rules, laws, enforcement, and institutions of the market society so that they promote both overall prosperity and future growth.

Let’s call the second Social Democratic America, from Lane Kenworthy’s important book. There the argument is that the United States government should be more like Scandinavia, in that everyone pays more in taxes and gets more in government services and income support. As Kenworthy says in the introduction, the spending increases he proposes are “likely to be in the neighborhood of 10 percent of GDP,” which we can’t get “solely from those at the top, even though they are getting a steadily larger share of the pretax income.”

The interactions between the two approaches are interesting. Kenworthy is agnostic on efforts to adjust the “pre-distribution” of incomes using the first approach, and would likely say that his approach works to boost living standards either way. The Rewrite approach calls for more government programs, but they are often modeled on a “public option.” The goal there is not more spending per se, but substituting public for private spending, on the idea that the public option can provide better cost outcomes and regulate private markets.

(Think of calls for making public colleges free: Usually the idea is to replace a lot of the money we already spend on aid with a genuinely free public option, with the added benefit that that this can also drive down private costs. This is different than “we should all spend more on making sure people can attend college.”)

Rewrite pictures high taxes on the rich not just as a revenue raiser but also as a regulatory mechanism against cronyism and rent-seeking corporate structures, shifting the pre-tax distribution as much as the post-tax one. But much of the Rewrite narrative can be counterproductive to a large government, inasmuch as it can be too focused on the idea that the government is too captured to do good. However it’s hard to see the Social Democratic America vision making any progress with wages stagnating and worker power weak.

The Rewrite vision is very present in the campaign, but the second is missing. It’s been missing since President Obama declared he wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class. Indeed, whether Sanders’s agenda raises taxes on the middle class or simply shuffles the provisioning of services has become a major campaign debate. As Jim Tankersley has noted, both Sanders and O’Malley are walking a line between whether or not taxes should go up on the middle class and whether or not you can fund the government they want by taxing the rich and shuffling everyone else’s payments. (Austan Goolsebee tries to work out the numbers here.)

In other words, no candidate is simply defending the idea that we should all pay more in taxes to get more services. This may turn out to be one of the more important negative legacies of the Obama era.

6. Break Up All The Things: I’m pretty surprised antitrust hasn’t played more of a significant role in Sanders’s speeches and policy. I don’t want to fall into the pundit fallacy of “what I’d like to see is what everyone wants to see and also would be the best thing to do,” but I know Sanders has emphasized this issue in the past.

It’s a way of linking the consolidation and power of finance with the power of businesses overall, which is often driven by Wall Street’s demands. And it’s a venue for economic reforms of the type Sanders emphasizes, be they breaking up consolidated power on one hand, or regulating natural monopolies as if they are public utilities. As David Dayen recently noted, this is another American left legacy that is currently experiencing a revival, and one that could use national attention.

For 7-8, Clinton has downplayed the differences between herself and those on her economic left, but the cracks are becoming clearer and could be made more clear.

7. Taxes Are Worth It For Families: There’s something beyond the ugly attacks Clinton is launching against Bernie Sanders on taxes and whether or not we can discuss raising taxes. It’s a major problem if Clinton isn’t willing to propose a small payroll tax to pay for family leave, as per the rumors currently circulating. This would mean she won’t support Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act, the consensus approach liberals including Bernie Sanders are rallying around. It builds on the successful logic of Social Security, which Sanders used in the speech as an example of government at its best, to provide genuine social insurance for families and mothers.

Clinton said early on that family policy was going to be an important part of her campaign. But if Clinton can’t get near the consensus liberal policy pick on the economic issue she most wants to own—family strength and female empowerment—that’s a massively missed opportunity that would allow Sanders to be a better pick when it comes to family and feminist economic issues.

8. Appoint Who? The biggest practical difference between Democratic administrations given a GOP-dominated Congress is in the appointments. So far only O’Malley has pushed Clinton in the debates on whether she’d draw from the Rubin wing of economists and staff once in office.

Personnel is policy. Sanders could offer a clearer vision of what he’d want for his administration by describing his likely appointment criteria. Would he appoint people to the Federal Reserve who believe in breaking up the banks? Would he appoint people to the Department of Justice who take mass incarceration as the threat it is? President Sanders is unlikely to get Medicare for All, but he will have to make appointments. This would also hopefully start locking Clinton into specifics on the people she’d put in place if she becomes president—a question that still worries many progressives and liberals.