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America’s Confusion on Socialism 

What the Left, Right, and Center are all getting wrong

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has thrust American political discourse into a debate of whether to embrace a bold progressive agenda which he and his supporters call, democratic socialism.

Before the rise of Bernie Sanders to the position of the Democratic primary election frontrunner, there were no elected national level politicians who openly identified with this ideological labeling. To Americans, the idea of electing a socialist candidate to the white ouse would have seemed so bizarre, that most would have discount the possibility of this happening in their lifetimes.

Yet, Sanders has been able to galvanize a massive grassroots movement which has propelled him to the frontrunner position of the Democratic primary election.

His supporters are angered by staggering levels of income inequality, failing public services, difficulty accessing education and healthcare and a regressive criminal justice system which disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities. They argue that America has become an oligarchy whose government serves only the needs of the rich and well connected, rather than ordinary Americans. They want to fix these issues by raising taxes on the rich, creating public health insurance, giving workers seat’s at their company’s boards of directors and raising the minimum wage while placing heavier regulations on industry and finance.

Does this agenda sound similar to anyone else running? Elizabeth Warren’s call to adopt “accountable capitalism” also includes all of these elements. Yet cable media commentators, political activists, and academics have treated their campaigns very differently for no apparent reason other than a difference in labeling.

At the MSNBC Nevada Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was asked “Can we count on a Democratic Socialist president not to give authoritarian regimes a free pass?”

The nonsensical hypocrisy of such a question is obvious to anyone who studies American history. America, led by capitalist presidents, has supported authoritarian regimes all over the world from Argentina, Chile, Iran, Saudi Arabia and countless other countries. Why should Sanders receive extra scrutiny for calling himself a Democratic Socialist and modeling his policies after those of the Nordic countries, known for having some of the most transparent and least corrupt governments in the world.

At Northwestern University, an elite university known for having a progressive student body, I have met countless students who have told me that they support Warren but oppose Sanders, but cannot name a reason other than the difference in labelings.

I do not mean to suggest that all the Democratic candidates are the same. The difference between Sanders ‘and Warren’s platforms are vastly different on a number of key issues, but there is no logical axiom which can place Sanders firmly into the socialist camp, if Warren is to be considered an “accountable capitalism”.

Yes, Bernie Sanders is farther to the left, but at what is it exactly that makes Bernie into a socialist, if Elizabeth Warren is a capitalist?

We can see this discrepancy between proclaimed ideology and proposed policy positions play out in political discourse all the time. In the MSNBC Nevada Democratic primary debate, Elizabeth Warren was asked why she considered herself a capitalist and not a socialist, leading to one of the most awkward answers of the night.

“I am a capitalist, believe I believe in markets.” Warren said slowly. She seemed to be thinking carefully on how to phrase her response in a way that would emphasize that she is a capitalist, but alas, a progressive capitalist who will be able to stride the line between the Sander’s populist enthusiasm and America’s traditional capitalist ethos.

The truth, the overstated focus on semantics has been incredibly unproductive and misleading.

If Bernie Sanders supported a $14 minimum wage, would that make him a capitalist?

And by the same token, if Warren wanted to wipe out all student loan debt instead of only some, would that make her a socialist like Sanders?

There are degrees of being closer to fitting in the box of an ideology, but no objective means of categorization.


Socialism is almost something that only exists in the minds of voters. There is a difference between the ideologies of democratic socialism, social democracy, and progressivve (accountable) capitalism but in American politics, these are so ill defined and subject to individual interpretation, that there is no definitive answer to this question.

I am not defending actual calls for abolishing private marketplaces and replacing capitalism altogether. Reading socialist ideology, the philosophy is often so abstract that it comes full circle. Many socialists, such as Noam Chomsky claim to be anarchists, which means they support economic organization governed by workers council instead of private capital or governments. Workers councils are said to be organizations founded on free association, just like private businesses, but in which workers have the right to enforce public ownership. The fallacy of this logic is that it does not explain how this would be manifestly different in real life. If the workers council has the right to establish economic control over the means of production, then what is it exactly that differentiates a worker’s council from a government?

The insistence that there is a finite difference between capitalism and socialism does not have much implication for policy proposals. If America is going to have a debate about socialism, then let’s have it be about how to best use the government, private organizations, and unions to create a more meritocratic society. The insistence on reaching some form of pure socialism is unnecessarily divisive and overall, an unproductive conversation. By the technical definition of social democracy, even conservatives and libertarians would be considered social democrats if they support taxation to fund services such as public schools. Unlike economics, which is a empirical discipline, there is not objective measure of political ideology, at least not one that is precise enough to use in public discourse, and the question of whether society should be fundamentally socialist or capitalist, is best left to forums specially dedicated to political philosophy, not 15 second news sound bites.

Humans should respect individual ambition and an individual’s rights to pursue their own destiny to the extent that they do not destroy or exploit others so much so that their own capacity for self-determination is undermined.

That said, there is not a single eason I can find to suggest that a Bernie Sanders’ presidency would lead to some Orwellian outcome that some on the right, center and even left, fear would occur. On the contrary, Bernie Sanders is the most libertarian out of all the candidates on social and legal issues. He fully supports the right for independent, privately owned media to conduct journalism and public forum, while Warren stated that she wants to establish a government agency to regulate social media in the name of fighting fake news. Bernie Sanders has called for ending quantitative easing, the most powerful tool the U.S. government has to control the economy, and is the only Democratic candidate who voted against Trump’s military budget increase. Unlike supporters of Venezuela’s oil export socialism, supporters of Bernie Sanders are fighting for economic diversification, a move to green sustainable energy which will truly allow America to become energy independent while protecting the health of the country’s rural workers in devastated oil extraction regions, and urban dwellers in polluted cities. Although I do not agree with all of his policy positions, I see his campaign as the most reason-based out of all the Democratic candidates. In his message, I see hope for economic self determination and local autonomy rather than an oppressive central planning. Former candidate and billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer’s proposed $22 minimum wage would have done do more to hurt small business owners than anything Sanders supports, yet media pundits and talk show hosts feels more comfortable asking Sanders “Is America ready to support a socialist candidate” than giving so called moderates like Steyer a tough a question about his ridiculous minimum wage. Far too much attention has been paid to ideological labeling, and too little to substantive discussion of what specific policies work and which ones do not.

People, and especially the American people, will always have their ideologies. But numbers do not have an ideology.

A classic right wing rebuttal of anti capitalist thought is that capitalism is not a zero sum game since both employers and employees can benefit from their mutual relationship. I invite these thinkers, as well as supporters of Bernie Sanders, to apply this same logic to the relationship between business and government.

Nordic states, highest ranked GDP countries in the world have capitalist economies bolstered by welfare states that provide essential services in childcare, education and healthcare. This is because, when people are better taken care of, they will make better workers, better citizens, and ultimately, more balanced and full filled people.

I attended a Bernie Sanders campaign gathering and saw firsthand the suffering that our growing, but unbalanced economy is causing. After having the main staffers give a speech, the audience was invited to open up about why they came to the event. An elementary school teacher who did not want to be identified by name, took the stage and told us a lump was growing on her breast, but still could not afford the copays and deductibles to see a doctor. Her husband had been fired from a long term job without any notice, and now their family is scared of what will happen.

“Even if I could go see a doctor and they did find something, I don’t know what we would do, because we would not have any money for treatment.”

I may be more moderate than most Sanders supporters, but I know that it is the special interest groups which have entrenched corruption into our government, not social welfare spending, that is really going to bankrupt America. Do we think that Mike Bloomberg with his history as mayor will take on the prison industrial complex? Do we trust Elizabeth Warren, who voted for Trump’s military budget increase, is the one to stand up against the military industrial complex?

No candidate is perfect, but Bernie Sanders at least, stands in principles rather than adhering to the whims of the political current. It is time we join other capitalist nations in enacting policies which ensure that human life is not subject to the capricious nature of unregulated markets.

Now America, the only developed nation with a falling life expectancy, has a choice to continue getting bogged down in questions of ideological semantics, or have the debate that our country really needs. We do not need to create a utopia, but we must do better for our citizens.


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