When critics of socialism warn against its dangers, they often invoke communist tyrants of the 20th century. So when Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a major speech on Wednesday about what democratic socialism means to him, those critics may have been surprised to hear that "freedom" was his watchword.
"What I believe is that the American people deserve freedom—true freedom," Sanders said to an audience of supporters at George Washington University. "Freedom is an often-used word, but it's time we took a hard look at what that word actually means. Ask yourself: What does it actually mean to be free?"
Sanders went on to list nearly a dozen examples illustrating how economic insecurity—in the form of low wages, unaffordable health care, meager pensions, and the like—is incompatible with anything that could be considered a free life. Moreover, Sanders said, this is by design: "Many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires."
Sanders' argument that democratic socialism is the path to true freedom is shrewd messaging: It's an attempt to flip conservative talking points about socialism on their head, and to re-appropriate freedom as a principle of the left. It also allows him to sidestep interminable debates about what really counts as socialism by anchoring his ideology in a quintessentially American tradition of liberty.
Back in 2015, when Sanders was emerging as a surprise political rock star, he gave a speech explaining his worldview that sounded similar themes. But in his Wednesday address, Sanders' pitch for democratic socialism as a vehicle for liberty held far more potency and urgency than it did in 2015. (He used the words "free" or "freedom" more than twice as many times on Wednesday as in his 2015 speech.) In part that's because today's political environment is drastically different from that of 2015: President Donald Trump is in power, right-wing nationalism is booming across Europe and Asia, and Sanders is now insisting that the only effective response to the rising tide of authoritarianism is democratic socialism.
Sanders grounded his argument in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vision for America. "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence," Sanders said—a direct quotation of FDR's 1944 State of the Union address, in which Roosevelt proposed an "economic bill of rights." Sanders declared it his mission to "complete what Roosevelt started," and announced the rollout of a "21st-century economic bill of rights" to accomplish that.
Sanders' 21st-century bill of rights includes a living wage, high-quality health care, affordable housing, a complete education, a clean environment, and a secure retirement. In short, on Wednesday, Sanders contended that a massive expansion of America's welfare state was a prerequisite for the free life of its citizens.
Sanders also stressed that democratic socialism is the liberty-loving alternative to the twin tyrannies of "oligarchy and authoritarianism." He argued that a continuation of Trumpian right-wing populism would further empower nativist and racist hatred while buttressing the plutocracy, and likewise that a return to the pre-Trump status quo would mark a destructive victory for the top 1 percent of earners. Sanders invoked sharp parallels with FDR's America, describing how fascism in America was a growing threat in the 1930s, culminating in a massive Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939.
"We in the United States, thankfully, made a different choice than Europe did in responding to the era's social and economic crises," Sanders said, endorsing FDR's notion that the New Deal was a way to beat back domestic fascism.
While Sanders focused on FDR and (avowed socialist) Martin Luther King Jr. in his arguments for democratic socialism, the left has a long and rich tradition of understanding socialism as the pursuit of freedom. The labor organizer Eugene Debs, who ran for president five times between 1900 and 1920 as a member of the Socialist Party of America, and whom Sanders considers a political idol, proclaimed that wage labor was "slavery" and that a politically conscious and properly organized working class would spell the "death of despotism, the birth of freedom, the sunrise of civilization." Many leftists have similarly presented socialism as a defense against authoritarian tendencies, an idea perhaps most famously summed up by the Polish-German Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, who, surveying the destruction of World War I, warned that the West had to choose between socialism and "barbarism."
Sanders' big speech marks an attempt at disrupting the monopoly that conservatives have held over the concept of freedom in American political life since the Reagan era. The right has successfully conflated freedom with free markets, and Democrats ever since have been working within trickle-down orthodoxy: Bill Clinton eviscerated welfare and gutted financial regulations, while Barack Obama extended the Bush tax cuts and used a private insurance model backed by right-wing think tanks to reform health care. But wresting the concept of freedom back from the right, and redefining that concept to put human welfare at its center, is crucial for the success of any left-wing movement. "From Emerson and Douglass to Reagan and Goldwater, freedom has been the keyword of American politics," Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College, wrote in The Nation in 2011. "Every successful movement—abolition, feminism, civil rights, the New Deal—has claimed it."
The main question now is whether people are ready to buy Sanders' argument. The fact that left-wing policies like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, and high taxes on the wealthy tend to poll well across the political spectrum—and that a number of mainstream Democratic presidential candidates have embraced them—suggests that these ideas are resonating in a serious way. While some left-leaning analysts are concerned that "socialism" is a still a loaded label that could drag a candidate down in a general election, polling suggests that perceptions are changing: Last year, Gallup found that, for the first time in its polling on the issue over the past decade, Democrats held more positive views of socialism than of capitalism.
Ultimately, of course, Sanders' goal isn't to popularize a word. It's to cultivate a new kind of common sense: an understanding that the current politico-economic order benefits the few at the expense of the many; that serious collective action is required to change it; and that focusing with ferocity on economic freedom for ordinary Americans is a path to a truly free citizenry, free from want and from the threat of despotism.
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