To tell you the truth I’m surprised by Bernie Sanders’ success in this early primary season. I was glad when he decided to mount a campaign, but I figured he would be a sparring partner for Hilary Clinton, little more.
It turns out there’s a lot more.
Sanders is running a robust campaign that, contrary to the mainstream pundits who, in their obsession with political symmetry, want to pigeon-hole him as the flip side of Donald Trump, seems based less on reactionary anger than a gathering recognition by more and more people that the country’s economic system is eating them up.
Sanders is far from being an ideal candidate. For one (not insubstantial) thing, he’s too old. I know he’s in great shape, but really. The man will be pushing 76 at next year’s inauguration. This is an age where, for most of us, the wheels start coming off. And most of us don’t have to deal with the 24/7 cage match that is the presidency.
But wherever Sanders winds up during this election cycle, his brand of “democratic socialism” appears to be finding a growing constituency. It’s about time.
At a townhall meeting this week, Sanders defined his brand of democratic socialism in terms of well-established programs that Americans have come to rely on, like social security and medicare. Government-sponsored programs, in other words, aimed at establishing a certain quality of life for all people. Helping people toward a safer, more secure life, Sanders seemed to say, is something government can do. Why? So society as a whole can be more stable and productive.
Sanders’ democratic socialism sees that policy-making makes a difference. Tax policy, for example, created what we have come to call the American middle-class. As economist Thomas Piketty recently observed in The Guardian, from 1930 to 1980, the tax rate for the highest U.S. income (over $1 million a year) was on average 82 percent, with peaks of 91 percent from the 1940s to 1960s, and still as high as 70 percent when Reagan was elected in 1980.
As Piketty notes: “This policy in no way affected the strong growth of the post-war American economy, doubtless because there is not much point in paying super-managers $10 million when $1million will do.”
The middle-class didn’t just happen. It was fostered through tax policy aimed at spreading prosperity (also known as wealth redistribution) and encouraging investment and consumer power. Combined with civil rights legislation and an aggressive emphasis on public education, redistributive tax policy helped define America’s most broad-based economic boom.
But you don’t have to Piketty’s word for this. In 2002 Kevin Phillips (a Republican who served in the Nixon administration, by the way) made the same point, based on a history of tax policy, in his book, Wealth and Democracy. Why, you ask, would a Republican strategist call for higher taxes on the wealthiest citizens? Because Phillips, like Bernie Sanders, understands that American democracy is only as strong as its middle-class.
Call this democratic socialism, if you like. What Bernie Sanders is proposing isn’t radical, or even new. It’s the stuff the American dream is made of.