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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 11/12/15

How Bernie Sanders Should Explain Democratic Socialism

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Message Michael Blecher
Bernie Sanders in black and white
Bernie Sanders in black and white
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"We are saying something is wrong"with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move towards a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children."

At first glance, one may misattribute the above quote to so-called radicals like Bernie Sanders but actually the quote above belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bernie Sanders will often look to places like Denmark to explain Democratic Socialism but he seems to forget that many figures we idolize and memorialized were avowed socialists. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic." He noted that "Capitalism started out with a noble and high motive but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness" (Letter to Coretta Scott, July 18, 1952).

When Bernie Sanders discusses socialism, he needs to remind people that American democracy guarantees certain political rights to all men, women and children but a Democratic Socialist believes the American Constitution should also assure certain economic rights as well. Dr. King once said "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?"

Sanders needs to inform American citizens that no elected official, neither Democrat nor Republican plans to assure that every person is provided with affordable housing, a useful and financially-rewarding job, free access to medical care, education (i.e., free college), and enough of an income that will allow them to purchase clothing and engage in recreation. When Bernie Sanders talks about socialism, he is talking about the idea that children should not go to bed hungry at night, that a person should not go into debt because they needed a triple bypass, that a person should not become homeless simply because their job was shipped overseas. For too long, poverty has plagued this nation. For too long, we have turned our backs on those who were struggling simply because they were not born with the last name of Rockefeller. He needs to remind the voters that regardless who has been in power, income inequality has not improved. Rather we want to admit it or not, income inequality did not improve under President Clinton, or President Bush. Nor did it improve under President Obama. Bernie Sanders should inform the voters that the intentions of our elected officials may have not been malicious.

In fact, many of them may have wanted to help the poor and middle-class. However, when people like Barack Obama got to Washington, he found out that the rich and greedy have corrupted the political system. Wall Street and the banks have become too big. Lobbyists have become too powerful. It is impossible to implement real change when influential campaign donors will exert as much pressure as they can to assure the status quo is not disrupted, so the pie is still shared among the few, when it should be shared among the many. This is why Bernie Sanders feels that even if he is elected, no real change can occur unless American citizens organize and become engaged in a political movement that men like Dr. King were planning to implement had he not been assassinated and that movement was one designed to end poverty.

People may become skeptical of such a vision, and claim it is nothing more than impractical and fantasy. However, we forget that it wasn't just Dr. King that envisioned such an idea. We should remember that Franklin D. Roosevelt, considered by most historians as one of our best presidents had such a vision. FDR realized that the only way the U.S. Bill of Rights could assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness would be if we were guaranteed food, clothing, a living wage, housing, education, medical care and social security. Tragically, FDR did not see his vision ever become a reality. However, as Tim Robbins once famously stated in Shawshank Redemption, "no good thing ever dies."

Bernie Sanders should not just remind us that in many places in this world, these kinds of welfare states already exist in some fashion. He should remind us that in many countries, Social Democrats are a major political party, and these countries are often referred to as social democracies. He should inform us that even though Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world, and we are one of the richest societies in history, the United States still remains the only developed country that doesn't guarantee health care to its citizens, is one of only two nations that does not guarantee paid maternal leave, and by almost every measure, the "U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality."

When Bernie Sanders discusses socialism, he is discussing the belief that the United States should not look like a third-world country yet sadly it often does. However, Bernie Sanders should not dwell on the economic systems that other countries rely on so much. After all, he can name so many figures, past and present, American, and foreign-born, that proudly called themselves socialists. Cesar Chavez was a socialist. Nelson Mandela also had very socialist leanings. Dorothy Day, one of the four Americans who Pope Francis signaled out as a great American during his speech to Congress was a socialist. Albert Einstein wrote a wonderful piece in 1949, explaining why he felt socialism was the system we needed to move towards. W.E.B. Du Bois was also a socialist. So too is Angela Davis. Even the author of our Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy was a socialist. In fact, the author of the book that warned us of the danger of Big Brother, George Orwell, was a socialist.

Even when we examine someone like Dolores Huerta, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, we will be shocked to discover that she was an Honorary Chair of Democratic Socialists of America. Another Honorary Chair of such an organization was Gloria Steinem, who is also endorsing Hillary Clinton. So Bernie Sanders does not need to tell us about Denmark for us to embrace socialism. The truth is many of the most beloved figures, both living and dead, were socialists. In the 1960s, Dr. King said "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

In 2014, another brave socialist said the following, "I am convinced that socialism is the only answer, and I urge all comrades to struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation." This quote can be attributed to Malala Yousafzai. If political opponents want to continue attacking Bernie Sanders for his socialist views, that's fair. But I urge them to stop worshiping and idolizing such figures that proudly denounced capitalism. We can't have it both ways. We can't perceive these figures as heroes, and then claim socialism is contradictory to everything America represents.

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Michael Blecher was working as a research assistant at several psychology labs before becoming a political activist. He canvassed in six different states for the Bernie Sanders' campaign, and his activism has been covered in The Village Voice (more...)

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