By Raphael Sassower
It was our 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, who recognized his position and the White House as a "bully pulpit," defined as "a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue." Perhaps it's unfair, but it seems that Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate for 2016, is missing a golden opportunity to follow the spirit, if not the letter of Teddy's insight.
The media is apt to remind us that Bernie Sanders is "unelectable" because he is a "socialist" even as he corrects everyone that he is a "social democrat." He is saddled with the old Cold War mentality that understood "socialism" as the marker of the Soviet Union, a militaristic dictatorship with central planning and lack of freedom for its citizens. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union (and its form of State Socialism) collapsed, and social democracy is the rage in most Eurozone countries.
Bernie Sanders has the golden opportunity not only to make sure Americans are aware of these simple facts -- and thereby change the tenor of the discourse over his policies -- but also to offer a brief explanation of what social democracy is about, and how it has been practiced not only in Europe but also in the USA. In short, Bernie's candidacy is missing an opportunity that any leftist academic would "kill" for: teaching the American public what is actually going on in our midst.
Social democracy is primarily understood as a political system that is democratic with market economy that favors public ownership of the means of production and has a great concern for public goods and services -- from roads and bridges to the Internet -- with a modicum of humanity in the form of safety nets for the poor, needy, and underprivileged. This means, in short, less concern with who "owns" a factory or a business, but more with how private ownership enhances public welfare rather than exploits it.
This kind of 21st socialism is not our grandparents' one; it cares more about using market efficiencies and less about central planning by some faraway bureaucrats; and it demands that when private ownership controls this or that industry, it should be proven that it's superior to the state owning natural resources, for example, or that "economies of scale" are in fact operating in a way to cheapen resources and products for all of us. In short, it's a sophisticated system that appreciates the ultimate goal of ensuring the best, most productive use of natural and human resources.
So, to begin with, Bernie can explain what was just said. He can distinguish the crude and abusive state-planning system from the more nuanced and efficient system so many modern European and Asian economies use today. But, secondly, Bernie can also point out that in fact we are already living in a quasi-socialist system that has been endorsed by the entire political spectrum.
How are we already social democrats? We have numerous safety nets that have become part of American culture and that will not be scrapped anytime soon. For example, there is no presidential candidate that wants to abolish Social Security, probably the most "socialist" of our practices. Nor is any candidate proposing to do away with Medicare; likewise, no one has suggested doing away with Medicaid which is an even more committed socialist ideal of providing health care to indigent people who cannot afford even base health insurance. Despite the rhetoric about the Affordable Care Act, all candidates know not to threaten some of the "sacred cows" the elderly have come to depend on so deeply -- and they vote!
But then, again, there are numerous other forms of so-called socialism we readily practice, even find attractive to fight for. Among them we must mention the military-industrial-academic complex that captures some $600 billion annually, and that among other things, offers opportunities to the least advantaged in ways the rest of the economy does not. Yes, the military, too, is part of the enormous welfare system we have in place, even though we prefer to speak of it in terms of "national security."
When all the candidates talk enthusiastically about their commitments to education, they forget to admit that these programs, from Pell Grants to Student Aid and Loans are government-sponsored programs that are funded (or guaranteed) by taxing the public (progressively, mind you, which means that the richer pay (theoretically) a higher percentage of their income than poorer citizens).
And lest we forget the most socialist activity since the New Deal (1933-1938), the banking bailout in 2008 was endorsed and implemented (legally and practically) by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. Good capitalists would have let weak banks collapse if they overreached or managed their finances poorly. No? Who'd think that conservative administrators would recommend government intervention?
Bernie Sanders, as he excites the young and less privileged, should keep reminding the public how socialist we already are, how fortunate we are that we are socialist to some extent, and that the debate is about keeping an intelligent and sensitive balance between being too socialist and not socialist enough. Would you want to live in a country where the poor die in the streets because of no access to health, shelter, and jobs? Are you willing to pay the price unfettered capitalism would exact on those not at the very 1% top? Of course, not.
Having the voice of Biblical prophets who spoke truth to power and who reminded the political establishment of their day of moral justice and their responsibilities as kings, Bernie should go even further in tutoring his audiences. Since we are already quasi-socialist, he can ask now how far--morally, socially, and economically--we should go to ensure the prosperity of all. We should be grateful to Bernie's voice, loud and angry as it is, and the fact that he still rails against the big banks and the "billionaire class." Yet, we can also entreat him to give a lesson, the kind of lesson given by those ancient prophets, and remind the American public that to be a socialist in the 21st century is to be both sensible and humane, or what we're to believe makes us so great.
Raphael Sassower is philosophy chair at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Prof. Sassower's latest books are Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), The Price of Public Intellectuals (2014), and Sports and Religion in American Culture (2014, with Jeff Scholes). He grew up in Israel and moved to the United States as a young man after serving as an officer in the IDF.