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Bernie Sanders and Socialism Part IV: “More Left-Wing Populist Progressive than Socialist

In our previous three posts I argued that Bernie Sanders was not a socialist according to any of the three major historical socialist movements—utopian, revolutionary, and evolutionary.  In this post I’ll argue that Sanders fits in more with the American political tradition of left-wing populism and progressivism. 

Once again, here are the three common characteristics of socialism.

  1. The goal of equality, especially economic equality
  2. The distrust of, if not outright opposition to, private property and economic competition
  3. The creation of a just society through scientific analysis and organization directed by a centralized power

Senator Sanders does not share these characteristics with socialists.[1]  First, he does not advocate socialist economic equality.  He constantly states that 1/10 of 1% in America own almost more than 90% of Americans.  He wants what he calls a more equitable distribution of wealth, which is different from economic equality.

Secondly, Sanders does not want to eliminate private property and economic competition.  He opposes what he calls “the billionaire’s class” and wants businesses to be free to operate free from the competition of monopolies.

Thirdly, Sanders’ support of single-payer health care, free tuition for public universities, and large works programs will result in a greatly expanded role of the federal government, but he no longer favors nationalization of major industries.  In his Georgetown speech he stated that he does not believe that government should own the means of production, a major socialist plank.  Rather he wants private companies to grow and invest in America and increase jobs here.

So why does Senator Sanders call himself a socialist?  An interview with Bill Maher helps explain this.[2]  Maher, whom I had never heard before and assumed to be an informed commentator, said that Americans need to understand what socialism is and that we are already a socialist country because we have Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans’ Administration and a military.  I think that Pharaoh, Louis XIV of France and Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States of America would be shocked to learn that they were leading socialist countries because they had a military.

What Maher and many on the right seem to think is that any government program is socialist.  In fact, right-wing critics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which were intended to combat the Great Depression, criticized them as socialist.  This is significant because Senator Sanders in his Georgetown speech on democratic socialism looks to FDR as a model.

The identification of Roosevelt’s programs with socialism raised the ire of Norman Thomas, six-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.  In his pamphlet “Is the New Deal Socialism?”[3]  Thomas responded with a resounding no.

…There is nothing Socialist about trying to regulate or reform Wall Street. Socialism wants to abolish the system of which Wall Street is an appropriate expression. There is nothing Socialist about trying to break up great holding companies. We Socialists would prefer to acquire holding companies in order to socialize the utilities now subject to them. … what Mr. Roosevelt has given us is State capitalism: that is to say, a system under which the State steps in to regulate and in many cases to own, not for the purpose of establishing production for use but rather for the purpose of maintaining in so far as may be possible the profit system with its immense rewards of private ownership and its grossly unfair division of the national income.

Therefore, one reason Bernie Sanders describes himself as a socialist, in spite of the fact that socialists disagree, is that Americans often describe the kind of programs he advocates as socialist.  I think that he also clings to the title out of attachment to his more radical political stances of the 1960’s and 70’s.  Even more importantly, he likes the word “socialism” because it sounds radical and revolutionary.

This rhetorical, rather than substantive, use of the word “socialism” leads me to conclude that Sanders is more of a left-wing populist than an actual socialist.  His language is typical of populist rhetoric and many of his reforms were anticipated years ago by the left-wing of the populist movement.

In America populism represents itself as the voice of ordinary people who feel that the elite powerbrokers have unjustly excluded them from the prosperity and rights that are due to them.  For this reason, populism is characterized more by a feeling of moral outrage and frustration and a rhetorical style than a specific political program.  This sentiment of moral outrage results in a rhetorical style of “we,” the virtuous many, against “them,” the corrupt elite.

Understood as the expression of the moral outrage of those who perceive themselves to have been treated unjustly, political populism cuts across traditional philosophical lines, such as conservative, liberal, and socialist, and can find a home in both the Republican and Democratic parties.   The specific political positions and allegiances depend upon which group believes itself to be the true people that have been unjustly treated.  A brief look at American political history bears this out.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s populism expressed the frustrations mostly of small farmers and to a lesser extent laborers against what they perceived as the unjust political and economic system that favored wealthy bankers, railroad tycoons, and landowners against the common working man.  Among several proposals, they supported anti-trust legislation, direct election of senators, and a graduated income tax.  It was strongest in the South and the West, which resented the predominance of the East coast elite.

The history of the three abovementioned proposals demonstrates the difficulty of identifying populism with a particular party or ideology.  The graduated income tax was already a part of the socialist platform.  When the Democratic Party chose William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate in 1896, it coopted much of the populist agenda.  Yet, the 16th and 17th amendments, which made direct federal income tax and the popular election of senators constitutional, were proposed by Republican congresses, and Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive wing of the Republican Party were the most successful trustbusters.

In fact the Progressive reforms of both Roosevelt presidents had populist roots and used populist rhetoric to promote them. Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal appealed to the notion of the fair sharing of America’s wealth and supported a more activist role for the federal government in the American economy.  Although both were wealthy, they were more of the patrician class and so tended to be distrustful of large business interests and new money.  FDR’s first inaugural address even called financiers and bankers “unscrupulous money changers” and was grateful that they had “fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

More thoroughgoing and radical populist-styled politicians were Senator Robert La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin and Senator Huey Long of Louisiana.  Both supported social programs with populist roots.  Long called his radical program of redistribution of wealth Share Our Wealth and even borrowed the old William Jennings Bryan slogan, “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” for his gubernatorial campaign in 1928.  Yet neither considered himself a socialist and both ran afoul of the major parties.  La Follette left the Republicans to join the Progressive Party, and before he was assassinated, the Democrat Long was considering running as a third party candidate for president in 1936.

When Bernie Sanders proclaims that the ruling class’s “greed is destroying America” and that “our government belongs to all of us not just a handful of billionaires,” he is using classical populist rhetoric.  Also, like a Huey Long and Robert La Follette, he doesn’t fit in well with the two-party system.  People often forget that he is an independent senator from Vermont, not a representative of the Democratic Party.[4]

What is the significance of this dispute about names?  Let me suggest four important consequences or at least signs from the fact the Bernie Sanders uses, indeed misuses, the title of socialist and employs populist rhetoric.

  1. Although he probably won’t win the Democratic Party’s nomination, his strong left-wing candidacy will push that party towards a more leftist agenda. This has often been the result of populist movements.
  2. The fact that many now perceive socialism as better and kinder than other options is further evidence that the ideal of smaller government and the consequent distrust of large centralized government characteristic of the old Republic of the Founding Fathers and many traditional conservatives are moribund.
  3. That many younger voters who looked favorably on Ron Paul’s candidacy now find Sanders attractive, while not showing much philosophical acumen, does reveal the widespread and deep dissatisfaction with America’s current political system.
  4. Lastly, the populist rhetoric of “we versus them” is dangerous. It is openly divisive.  It defines the others as unethical and un-American and so makes legitimate compromise nearly impossible.  It demonizes those who disagree with us and feeds an unhealthy self-righteousness among those who use and believe it.  Worse it creates an atmosphere of hatred and anger that will result in violence.

[1] As stated in a previous post, the best single source for Senator Sanders’ views is his speech of November 19, 2015 at Georgetown University.  It is available in full on YouTube at

[2] The relevant portion can be seen at

[3] The pamphlet can be found online at

[4] Donald Trump, who is currently leading the pack for the Republican nomination for president, uses right-wing populist rhetoric.  Speaking frankly, while Senator Sanders actually seems to believe his rhetoric, I have serious doubts that Trump believes his own.  A better example of right-wing populism would be the Tea Party movement.

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