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The_Walrus
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05 Mar 2020, 6:54 pm

I thought I'd try to start a discussion about political theory.

Before I start, I'm far from an expert in comparative politics, so I'll try to lean on agreed terms and expert views.

I see lots of arguments, here and elsewhere, about the best way to describe Bernie Sanders. He calls himself a "democratic socialist", but is he? Is he a communist? Would he be considered a moderate in Europe? I'll try to address these questions and more. I will focus on his positions since becoming a candidate for the 2016 presidential election.

I'm going to try to take a neutral tone, minimising my bias wherever possible and not making judgements about the value of political positions. However, I am aware that total lack of bias is not possible.

Definitions

Before attempting to determine Bernie's ideology, we must first define broad ideologies that he's often associated with. I don't really think single sentences are good for defining political ideologies, so I'm going to use mildly trimmed versions of the first paragraph of relevant Wikipedia articles as these are very citation-rich. However, even a paragraph will often miss out on subtlety and variation, so if you're really interested, I recommend checking the article. (If you're really really interested then get a book)

Socialism
Socialism is a political, social and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management of enterprises. Social ownership can be public, collective, cooperative or of equity. While no single definition encapsulates many types of socialism, social ownership is the one common element. It aims to circumvent the inefficiencies and crises traditionally associated with capital accumulation and the profit system in capitalism.

Communism
Communism is a philosophical, social, political, economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society, namely a socioeconomic order structured upon the ideas of common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.

(Note here - Vladimir Lenin made a very influential distinction in which "socialism" is where the state owns things, and "communism" is where things are owned collectively by the people. This has led to a perception that communism is an extreme form of socialism. Some practitioners of both ideologies do distinguish between them, but others use them interchangeably)

Social Democracy
Social democracy is a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented economy. The protocols and norms used to accomplish this involve a commitment to representative and participatory democracy, measures for income redistribution, regulation of the economy in the general interest and social welfare provisions. Due to longstanding governance by social democratic parties during the post-war consensus and their influence on socioeconomic policy in the Nordic countries, social democracy became associated with the Nordic model and Keynesianism within political circles in the late 20th century. It has also been seen by some political commentators as a synonym for modern socialism and as overlapping with democratic socialism.

Hopefully you're already seeing that all of these terms are often used casually. This leads to a lot of confusion - if social democracy is socialism, and socialism is communism, and communism is abolition of money and the state, then social democracy suddenly seems very different to that definition I've posted above.

I further feel it necessary to define:

Progressivism
Progressivism is a political philosophy in support of social reform. It is based on the idea of progress in which advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.

Left-wing politics
Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy. It typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished.

Liberalism
Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support free market, free trade, limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.

In summary, then:

- A communist wants to abolish the state, the class system, and money, and replace businesses with collective ownership. A communist cannot be a capitalist.
- A social democrat wants to keep the state and money. They support capitalism but want to reform it to work for the people.
- A progressive wants to improve the world by moving it forward. This contrasts with a conservative, who supports keeping the world the way it is, or a reactionary, who wants to reverse social change. This is a woolly term that a very wide range of people will casually claim, but very few people present as their primary identity.
- A leftist prefers equality to hierarchy.
- A liberal supports freedom.
- Socialism is another woolly term. The Leninist definition is very influential but as I'll cover later, I don't think most self-defined socialists fit the Leninist definition.

The positions of Bernie Sanders

Here is a quick summary of some of Bernie Sanders' most important political views, positions, and policies:

- The US economy is rigged against the poor.
- The minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour.
- He would be "open" to a top marginal tax rate of 90%, although he doesn't seem to have made a concrete proposal for this rate anywhere.
- Free trade is outsourcing jobs. USMCA should not have been signed.
- The Federal Reserve should have its independence reduced.
- Opposition to climate change, nuclear power, fossil fuels, and large oil pipelines.
- Voting reform, campaign finance reform
- In foreign policy, a support for human rights and an opposition to conflict, but occasional uncritical praise for communist governments.
- Free tertiary education and forgiveness of existing student loan debt.
- Abolition of private healthcare. Scepticism around private education.
- Criminal justice reform, including on drugs.
- Support for abortion.
- Increased gun control.
- Support for LGBTQ+ rights.
- Immigration reform.

Now, let's compare these with the Presidency of Chilean socialist Salvador Allende, the first socialist ever to win a national presidency in a fair election.

- Nationalisation of copper mining, coal mining, and banking, at below market value.
- Government administration of the health care system and educational system for the first time.
- A programme of free milk for children in the schools and shanty towns of Chile.
- An expansion of the land seizure and redistribution already begun under his predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva. Allende seized all property over 18 hectares.
- Nationalisation of a major publisher, which was dedicated to printing left-wing propaganda and cheap books.
- Free public laundrettes.
- Free food for children under 11.

There is some common ground - both want the government to be running the health and education systems. But otherwise, Allende was far more radical despite living nearly 50 years ago. Allende was a socialist who wanted communism, but not right away.

Sanders has tried to compare his form of "socialism" to that of Denmark. Is Denmark a socialist country? Well, it has a high tax burden (45% - second in the OECD behind France), a large public sector (51%), and a strong social safety net. But it also has strong property rights, a market economy orientated towards free trade, and very little regulation. The land seizures and forced nationalisations in Allende's Chile would be unthinkable in Denmark. Together with its neighbours, Denmark follows an economic program known as the "Nordic model" - a strong economy enables a strong government. This is a form of social democracy.

There are some clear differences between the Nordic model and the Sanders model. Most importantly, the Nordic model is very pro-business, whereas the Sanders model - which is roughly shared by contemporary Western left-populists like Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Melenchon - is very anti-business. The Nordic model is also in favour of free and open trade, whereas Sanders, Melenchon and Corbyn are all opposed to this.

So, where to position these left-populists? While Corbyn and Melenchon go a bit further than Sanders, clearly they're not communists who go as far as Allende. Equally, all three show a distrust of the free market, wanting to dramatically raise taxes, flirting with the idea of a maximum wage, and abolish private control of some industries (Corbyn: post, education, water, and rail; Sanders: education and health; I'm less familiar with Melenchon but I know he wants to nationalise the motorways). But with the possible exception of Melenchon on a bad day, they do not want to abolish the free market, or the state, or the monetary system. They are too right-wing to be communists, but too left-wing to be obvious social democrats.

Sanders, Corbyn, and Melenchon have all described themselves as socialists. Sanders tends to preface that with "democratic". However, academics seem to reject this label of these three. Samuel Goldman calls Sanders a "welfarist" because he does not wish to abolish profit, or seize the means of production, which Goldman views as necessary parts of socialism. Similarly, Lane Kenworthy classifies Sanders as a social democrat, as does Mike Conczal. There seems to be a strong academic consensus that Sanders is a social democrat, not a socialist.

However, I also found that there was also a well-documented history of socialists calling themselves social democrats, and vice versa. Indeed, even some avowed communists have called themselves social democrats. My (not particularly rigorous) conclusion is that a socialist calls themself a social democrat in order to seem moderate, and a social democrat calls themself a socialist to seem more radical. We see this in Sanders, Corbyn, and Melechon, who all wish to clearly delineate themselves from the centre-left so they could attack moderates. Corbyn later tried to present himself as the moderate and everyone else as the extreme right. Needless to say that this tactic didn't work, and is one Sanders should probable avoid.

Conclusions/tl;dr
- Bernie Sanders's policies are more traditionally associated with social democracy rather than democratic socialism. He is not a socialist under the Leninist definition.
- Sanders' policies are not "normal in Europe" and his proposals do not look like the Nordic countries.
- It's not unusual for social democrats to present themselves as socialists in order to seem more extreme.
- The strongest parallels can be drawn between Sanders' politics and those of left-populists Jeremy Corbyn (UK) and Jean-Luc Melenchon (France).



Tim_Tex
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05 Mar 2020, 7:02 pm

Isn't the question of who owns major industries (the state or corporations) the main underlying difference between democratic socialism and social democracy?

Incidentally, Larry Sanders (Bernie's older brother) is the former Health Spokesman for the British Green Party.

That said, my views are generally center to center-right.


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TheRobotLives
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06 Mar 2020, 2:12 am

Sanders has repeatedly stated he wants to ban private health insurance.

This appears to be unique in the world, universal + banned private insurance.

They don't appear to do that in Nordic countries.

Communism?


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The_Walrus
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06 Mar 2020, 3:52 am

TheRobotLives wrote:
Sanders has repeatedly stated he wants to ban private health insurance.

This appears to be unique in the world, universal + banned private insurance.

They don't appear to do that in Nordic countries.

Communism?

It is Sanders’ most radical proposal, but as detailed in the post, it is more of a social democratic idea than a communist idea - particularly when taken in conjunction with the rest of Sanders’ policies.



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06 Mar 2020, 9:57 am

Back when I lived in Vermont about 6 or 7 years ago I got into some financial trouble and was helped by the office of senator Sanders,and was saved from eviction.


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06 Mar 2020, 1:07 pm

Great Analysis; At This Point to Date; Sander's Ideas are Too Extreme to gain Hold in the United States; even if he is elected.

On the Other Hand, as it becomes Nearly Impossible for the 'Middle Class' to Afford Health Care and Afford a College
Education; Newer Generations will Demand Change; if they get off their butt and Vote; But The Economics
of the Current Trajectory of Health Insurance for someone like me Twice Subsidized By Government paying
Two-Thirds; and me Still Paying over 10,000 Dollars a Year for two; is just not gonna Work for coming Generations
As there is no end to the Profit Making of Both Health Care and Education off the 'Common Man'. i have no problem
with it; but not everyone has the discipline to Save Enough Cash in their Mid-Forties to Last Decades either; yes, i am
the 5 percent of that; even in a Mediocre Profession of Pay; Just Don't Spend if you Have enough 'Within';
Most Folks Have NO CLUE HOW TO DO THAT; if they did, it's comparatively Easy to Get 'Rich Enough' to
be REALLY Free Early enough to truly achieve 'who you really are'. True; it helps to Go Child-Free, 'Big Time' too.

i never even played a Savings Account more than 4 percent;

Again; Just Don't Spend; And Best yet Don't Over Consume as that will 'kill' everyone sooner than soon...;)

i don't have much Faith in Politics/Religion to Fix the Problems of my Past or the Future Problems of others if the
Majority just do not care. The Majority Just Do Not Care; and that's Nothing New; Just ever increasing Distractions;
the real poison of Modern Culture; Tl;DR; Too Long to even care; With enough Misery and Suffering Humans will Wake up.


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07 Mar 2020, 7:24 am

Very nice post, well thought out and informative. I guess the question with categorizing Bernie as socialist or social democrat comes down to:

1) How many industries need to be nationalized to qualify as socialism? Allende didn't nationalize everything, many industries were untouched. Bernie proposes nationalization of the health industry.

2) Are Bernie's stated positions the extent of his philosophy? Does he think for example the steel industry should be publicly owned or privately owned? I doubt he has a definitive statement either way on record.


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07 Mar 2020, 8:05 am

For me social democracy is a type of socialism that's nearest to the political centre .


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The_Walrus
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08 Mar 2020, 6:53 am

Antrax wrote:
Very nice post, well thought out and informative. I guess the question with categorizing Bernie as socialist or social democrat comes down to:

1) How many industries need to be nationalized to qualify as socialism? Allende didn't nationalize everything, many industries were untouched. Bernie proposes nationalization of the health industry.

2) Are Bernie's stated positions the extent of his philosophy? Does he think for example the steel industry should be publicly owned or privately owned? I doubt he has a definitive statement either way on record.

On 1), I think it is important to be contextual. There is a general recognition that there is a market failure in health. If you’re sick then you can’t dial down your demand for healthcare because it is too expensive. In the US, healthcare for military veterans is already nationalised. Sanders’ proposal to ban private healthcare (except supplementary healthcare, which would still be obtainable privately) is more extreme than any I have heard of, but is still broadly in line with policies across the developed world from Sweden to Singapore.

The usual distinction between socialism and social democracy is that social democrats are content with broadly keeping the market economy indefinitely, whereas socialists see their reforms as eventually leading to communism. Allende was a committed Marxist, whereas Sanders seems to want to continue a market-based economy indefinitely.

On 2), I think the answer is almost certainly “no”. Like Corbyn, Sanders has expressed admiration for many politicians who are far to his apparent left, such as Fidel Castro. Voters may wish to consider that, but here I’m only trying to examined Sanders’ stated positions.