Ronald Reagan, arguing against an early Medicare bill in 1962, framed the issue as one with stark ideological implications. If the proposal passes, he warned, “behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day we will awake to find that we have socialism.”
God forbid—socialism! Americans of that era understood that such a path was a threat to their way of life, a passport to misery, as Reagan explained: “[O]ne of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Such ideological arguments, where socialism was seen not only as bad policy but as philosophically dangerous and threatening to fundamental American freedoms, were common in American politics for most of the twentieth century. Blurring the lines politically and rhetorically, conservatives could disparage any proposal that was even mildly socialistic as a slippery slope toward Soviet-style collectivism and totalitarianism. As such, even in the wake of successful legislation that brought about valuable governmental safety nets—from Social Security in the 1930s to Medicare in the 1960s—the word “socialism” remained generally taboo in American politics.
This ideological framing is key to understanding the recent success of Bernie Sanders. Given America’s historical phobia toward socialism, few would have imagined that Sanders, a self-described socialist, could make a serious run for the presidency. But so far he has proven conventional wisdom wrong, and he’s done so by packaging his socialism in a manner that embraces a quintessential American value—pragmatism—that repels ideological labels and imagery.
In presenting his agenda to the American public, for example, Sanders utilizes language that is rooted in the practical, offering not a comprehensive worldview but solutions to practical everyday problems such as low wages, the cost of education, and access to healthcare. Sure, Wall Street and the “richest one percent” are targets of criticism, but absent is any grand socialist vision of an egalitarian society.
Notably absent as well is the use of common socialistic semantics—direct references to “class struggle,” for example, or even any express call for workers to unite. Nobody would expect Sanders to use Marxian rhetoric predicting the eventual collapse of capitalism, but in fact any use of the word “capitalism” at all is extremely rare in his messaging. In his high-profile speech last fall at Georgetown University explaining his socialism, for example, the world “capitalism” was never mentioned.
Observers as far back a de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, have noted the American preference for the practical as opposed to the theoretical. Abstract theories and comprehensive worldviews rarely resonate in America, whereas real-world issues are instead paramount. Thus, Sanders speaks not of theory but of facts, realities of everyday life: “Millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages,” he repeatedly says, generating nods of approval from his audiences. (Interestingly, although of course Sanders has close ties to labor, the weakening of unions over the last generation is reflected in his rhetoric. There’s little talk of strikes or collective bargaining in his speeches, but instead just general allusions to “working men and women” and the need for a living wage.)
To millions of Americans who are too young to remember the Cold War demonization of socialism, and to many others who remember it but have outgrown such thinking, the Sanders “socialist” agenda offers nothing but sensible real-world policy. Sanders voters aren’t adopting a new ideology, but sizing up the political choices and realizing that core Sanders themes—that the system is owned and controlled by corporate interests, for example, and must be fixed—make sense.
After all, to today’s American the idea of healthcare for all is not so much a socialist concept as a practical one. If progress means anything, doesn’t it mean that a developed society should be able to provide healthcare for everyone? Is anyone seriously going to argue that doing so will create some kind of nanny state? That’s absurd, and anyone with half a brain knows it. Universal health care can hardly been seen as a slippery slope to gulags and forced collectivization.
Sanders maintains this pragmatic approach in discussing all issues, from campaign finance reform to raising the minimum wage. There is no ideological manifesto in his campaign arsenal, but only appeals to fairness and decency. “Nobody who works forty hours a week should be living in poverty,” he has said repeatedly, in tweets, stump speeches, and interviews.
It also helps that Sanders’s socialism is a soft socialism that doesn’t even contemplate public takeover of industries, which to many would be the litmus test for true socialism. As he has said himself, what he proposes is more of a European-style socialism that provides strong safety nets and emphasizes quality of life for all.
It may have a European influence, but what Sanders peddles is distinctly Americanized socialist politics. After all, unlike his European counterparts Sanders has no viable socialist party through which to work to deliver his egalitarian agenda. Using the Democratic Party to sell socialism is like using the Republican Party to sell evolution or church-state separation—you can do it, but such thinking is not really at home there.
Sanders has succeeded in doing so, at least so far, by presenting his agenda in practical terms that show it is as American as apple pie. He realizes that twenty-first century Americans expect a society where there benefits of technology and progress are reasonably available to all. In saying so he is the heir of FDR, not Lenin.
Americanized socialism doesn’t mean a classless society, but it does mean that everyone gets a fair shake and nobody falls through the cracks. It means when you work you can expect a decent wage; it means a society that appreciates and emphasizes education; and it means a society where corporate interests are subservient to human interests, not vice versa. Contrary to what Reagan suggested, a nation that offers such assurances is not less free, but more.
Sanders photo by Nick Solari