Why Doesn't Bernie Sanders Run on a Truly Socialist Platform?

Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, but his platform is hardly radical

The proposals at the core of Bernie Sanders' platform are standard fare for progressive Democrats. Credit: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald/Getty

Bernie Sanders is nominally a socialist, or at least he sorta-kinda calls himself one. "Do they think I'm afraid of the word?" he mused in a recent interview with The Nation. "I'm not afraid of the word." When The Washington Post gave him the opportunity to disavow the epithet during his 2006 Senate run, Sanders stood firm: "I wouldn't deny it," he said. "Not for one second. I'm a democratic socialist."

His affiliation has not escaped notice of Hillary Clinton's defenders. Sen. Claire McCaskill recently grumbled, "I think that the media is giving Bernie a pass right now. I very rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he's a socialist."

In apparent violation of this supposed cover-up, The Daily Beast's Ana Marie Cox has labeled Sanders an "extremist" "caricature" who amounts to "the Left's Trump." The Week's Damon Linker was also tempted by the Sanders-Trump comparison, calling them "unelectable radicals," and noting that Sanders "shows little interest in tailoring his message to woo the masses."

Yet, despite his inescapable affiliation with the s-word – long considered a politically fatal liability – and his reported contempt for the masses' sensibilities, Sanders continues to draw enormous crowds, outpace Hillary Clinton in attracting small donations and generate great enthusiasm, even among groups conventional wisdom doggedly insists will refuse to embrace his candidacy. That these throngs – energized by Sanders' egalitarian economic advocacy, support for worker empowerment and hostility to what he calls "the billionaire class" – are not noticeably put off by the description of these qualities as socialist, as opposed to merely "progressive," raises the question: Why doesn't Sanders avail himself of this political latitude and run on a more socialistic policy program?

For now, the proposals at the core of his platform – for the most part very good – are standard fare for progressive Democrats. Of the "12 Steps Forward" in his "Agenda for America," none diverge from the policies advocated by Sanders' fellow members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In fact, with the exception of "Creating Worker Co-ops," "Trade Policies that Benefit American Workers" and "Health Care as a Right for All," none of the items would seem out of place in a stump speech or State of the Union address by President Obama.

For now, this sort of platform constitutes the leftmost bounds of mainstream policy discourse, but there is plenty of room to stretch leftward through advocacy of "non-reformist reforms" – those that, in the words of French philosopher André Gorz, "advance toward a radical transformation of society," producing a "modification of the relations of power" and thus "serv[ing] to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints."

On the other hand, an increase in the minimum wage – to use one example from Sanders' platform – yields a host of advantages for working people, and plainly excites the opposition of the capitalist class, but it neither socializes ownership claims on capital, nor fundamentally changes the power relations between workers and owners, nor incites a process that yields equality as reliably as capitalism yields inequality. Raising the minimum wage is a defense against capitalists' perpetual imperative to intensify exploitation of labor by lowering wages, not an offense against the structures by which capitalists are able to do this.

Running on a platform with a non-reformist reform at its core would serve Sanders' pro-equality political project, even if he should lose to Clinton and her mountains of corporate cash. Once one of these off-the-agenda items is named, articulated and argued for – once people are familiarized with a program's contours, rationale and merits – it is much easier to mobilize support for an idea. The Nader campaigns left behind them nothing so much as contempt for third party "spoilers," the Kucinich campaigns not even that. People for Bernie (whose open letter encouraging Sanders to run I signed) may hope for an ongoing political organization, such as emerged from the insurgent candidacy of Sanders' fellow Vermonter, former Gov. Howard Dean. But it is fair to ask more. The more attention and enthusiasm his candidacy garners, the more favorable the terrain will be for Sanders to pry open the boundaries of policy consideration. This would provide a boost to the effort to agitate for a departure from capitalism, after what he calls his "revolution" concludes.

Of the array of non-reformist reforms Sanders could adopt as key planks, the one that probably makes the most sense is a job guarantee, whose historical advocates have ranged from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King. Under this program, the federal government would act as the "employer of last resort"; it could hire the unemployed for its own national projects, funnel money to states and municipalities or let communities design their own projects and apply for funding.

Guaranteeing public sector employment to anyone who wants to sign up would accomplish a lot of the goals Sanders trumpets. It would reduce inequality by eliminating unemployment and its resultant poverty. It would magnify worker power by providing an exit from the job market, thereby setting minimum standards for all sorts for private sector employment. It would eliminate employment discrimination, long a central pillar of structural racism, erasing the chief cause of recidivism. It would allow communities that currently rely on prisons to close them without toppling the local economy, thereby enabling the type of mass decarceration Sanders would do well to advocate forcefully, the better to make up for his recent blunder at Netroots Nation. It would promote ecological sustainability by making full employment independent of the resource extraction sector, by paying for low-emissions employment like elder- and childcare and by providing resources for pollution-reducing infrastructure renovation. It would guarantee dignified pay and conditions for so-called "unskilled" labor typically performed by women: domestic work, childcare and nursing. It would end reliance on increasingly expensive higher education as a prerequisite for employment. It would practically establish a public option for health care, since those availing themselves of the program would receive normal benefits for a federal employee.

All these virtues, and the program would be fiscally sound on its own. It would grow the deficit permanently – an outcome Sanders has repeatedly, to his disgrace, maintained is undesirable – but never so far that inflation, the sole danger of too big a deficit, ensues: When the business cycle is down, the program would grow to bring us up to capacity, and when a boom threatens to inflate the economy, the program would automatically shrink. As long as the job guarantee wages are not competitive with the private sector, they should serve to anchor the general price level.

Nor is this some bizarre, far-fetched idea that would hike Sanders' already uncomfortably high degree of Seeming Kooky: even without inclusion on the agenda of any mainstream political actors, a job guarantee already polls at 47 percent.

Ironically, no one touts the merits of guaranteed public employment more vigorously than modern monetary theorists like Stephanie Kelton, the chief economist for the Democratic staff on the Sanders-chaired Senate Budget Committee. I took his hiring Kelton as a signal that Sanders was preparing to run for president on a job guarantee. So far, he has given no such indication, but there remain many excruciating months until the primaries; Sanders has plenty of time to earn more fully the label he says he's not afraid of.