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.