According to conventional wisdom, Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist-leaning Senator from Vermont, should not have been a viable candidate in the 2016 Presidential election, let alone a serious challenger to former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, within the Democratic Party.
Yet Sanders’ impressive showings in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, as well as a surprise win in Michigan’s Democratic Primary last week, have signaled that he is more than a protest candidate and that his message is resonating with a wide spectrum of voters.
But who is Bernie Sanders, and why does his popularity appear to confirm the views of socialist-oriented thinkers, both past and present? And why has he become the first socialist-identified candidate to make such an impact since Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas?
The Education of Bernie Sanders
Sanders grew up with his parents’ economic struggles, and like many children of first-generation Jewish immigrants, he advanced himself through education. He began his political career as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and subsequently served in the House of Representatives, before being elected to the Senate.
Philosophically, Sanders has espoused unapologetic socialist views, in many ways a first since the Cold War. A self-described democratic socialist, he supports single-payer health care and progressive taxation, using the model of Western European democracies, placing him possibly closer to a social democrat than a pure socialist. In fact, the noted political scientist Frances Fox Piven, a Democratic Socialist Party activist, has described Sanders as functionally a New Deal Democrat, as Sanders does not also call for public ownership of principal economic functions.
Not Just Another Democrat
From the beginning of the 2016 Presidential season, Hillary Clinton was considered the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and her proponents have attacked Sanders’ ideas as “unrealistic” and “pie in the sky.”
But as Sanders’ campaign continues to gain ground among American voters, his opponents have been increasingly forced to take him and his ideas seriously.
Return of the Gilded Age
In many ways, Sanders’ candidacy has taken off precisely because he speaks to concerns of growing numbers of Americans amid the worst economic inequality in America since the Gilded Age.
Echoing past American responses to this situation, leftist, progressive, and workers’ movements has emerged in order to push back on behalf of ordinary Americans. Most significantly for this analysis, socialism is no longer so automatically discredited as a political and governmental philosophy.
How Right Was Sombart?
So what would Werner Sombart, who posed the question of why there was no socialism in America, make of the Sanders phenomenon?
Drawing from the earlier comparisons between America and Europe, Sombart had already qualified that Americans have rejected the idea of total state control, but not some of the more basic ideas of socialism that included essential political equality of persons and an acceptable basic standard of living. As long as these remain possible under capitalism, according to Sombart, there was never going to be a major call for a socialist revolution, and even in the present situation, when these are eroding, the solutions Sanders offers seem revolutionary only in comparison to those of Clinton.
Paine, Marx, and Keynes
Some of the major political and economic thinkers of the past would have viewed the current state of America as late-stage capitalism, ripe for revolution.
Predating Marxian socialism, American revolutionary Thomas Paine warned in Common Sense against the dangerous potential of any entrenched aristocracy.
Marx would have seen his economic theories of the unsustainable nature of unregulated capitalism outlined in Capital validated in many ways, though he likely would not have considered Sanders to be revolutionary enough.
And John Maynard Keynes, whose theory of “priming the pump”, using government intervention to empower consumers to spend, made his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money a profound influence on the shaping of the Second New Deal, would have cheered for Sanders’ proposed regulation of Wall Street.
Contemporary Thinkers and Sanders
Closer to the present, the late Eric Hobsbawm wrote about Europe in the eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries in The Age of Revolution, but he would have recognized the current dynamic of the benefits of capitalism excluding enough sectors of society for socialism to gain adherents.
Most recently, Sanders received the de facto endorsement of the French economist, Thomas Piketty, whose bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century confirms Marx’s theory about the inevitability of widening economic inequality as a result of capitalism, unless checked by drastic means such as technological advances or regulation in the form of wealth taxes, has published an op-ed analyzing the Sanders phenomenon as the end of Reaganism in America.
Past Precedents: Will Sanders Succeed Where Others Have Failed?
Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, 1908.
Whether Sanders’ Presidential campaign will succeed where those of past socialist and progressive candidates did not remains to be seen. But it is clear thus far that Sanders’ candidacy both builds on and differs from past efforts by major socialist Presidential candidates who did not come close to winning, but gained enough votes to make their mainstream politicians take notice.
In the case of Eugene V. Debs, even imprisonment under strict wartime espionage laws did not stop him from campaigning or winning a million votes in 1920. Debs, in fact, was one of Sanders’ political influences, but Sanders is not necessarily the new Debs. Most significantly, Sanders is taking his campaign beyond that of Debs, whose run for President was more about forcing change in the mainstream parties than his own ambitions to lead.
If anything, the Sanders phenomenon may in some ways reflect the fulfillment and non-fulfillment of the predictions of the next great American socialist candidate, Norman Thomas. Thomas, who ran for President six times in the 1930s and 1940s, said that Americans would never knowingly adopt socialism, but would gradually become socialist through the Democratic Party’s incorporation of elements of socialism into its platform and policies.
Like Sanders, these candidates espoused positions that could be identified as socialist and critical of the mainstream parties, while keeping at arm’s length from party orthodoxy, whenever possible. However, unlike these candidates, Sanders is fortunate to not be running against the Red Scare or the Cold War as well.
Regardless of the final outcome of Sanders’ campaign, however, the success of his candidacy has unprecedentedly upended popular assumptions about the relevance of socialism to the modern American electoral scene.