Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Bernie may not beat Trump, but he sure did something a decade or so ago few would have dreamed possible. He made talk of socialism respectable. Recent polls repeatedly show that a majority of millennials think it’s cool. A respectable number in other polls say they have no qualms about voting for a socialist. And still more say, hey wait a minute, don’t we already have a lot of what to some smacks of socialism– Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, and tons of government subsidies that run the gamut from agribusiness to corporations to the working and middle class. Also, legions now demand that taxing the rich out of their gourd to eradicate gaping wealth inequality.
So, Bernie suddenly doesn’t look, and sound so far fetched when he demands more of these things, topped with an overhaul of the system. Now, the trick is how to convince even more Americans to regard socialism as not a dirty word.
Outside of a relative handful of leftists, poli sci professors and majors, most Americans have no real clue what socialism, democratic or otherwise, is. The word “socialist” is a loaded term that has always touched a raw nerve with many Americans, old and young. The old Cold War image for decades of a socialist drilled home images of Lenin and Joe Stalin, bloody dictators, gulags, and totalitarianism, and Big Brother Orwellian regimentation. This has been more than enough to put a deathly scare in most Americans. To many, a socialist is pro-union, pro-increased government spending on health and education programs, and pro-civil liberties and especially civil rights.
That’s not socialism remotely by any name. The real head scratcher is trying to define just what it is. Talk to five self-proclaimed socialists and you’ll get five often wildly varying takes on what socialism is. They’ll be a lot of references to Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. None of which are socialist countries in the textbook definition of the meaning of socialism. That is full government and public ownership, regulation and management of industry, commerce and trade. Almost no one cites Laos, Cuba, the old Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, as examples of a socialism that’s desirable and that few in America would ever embrace. But the systems in these countries do and did fit the classic socialist model.
The bigger barrier in trying to sell Bernie’s socialist revolution is America itself; namely its past and present. The enshrined, rugged individualist, frontier, Horatio Alger, rags to riches, spirit has been repeatedly sold as the reason for America’s spectacular growth and development and status as a world leader. The cause was individual initiative. From practically cradle to grave, Americans are imbued with the laissez faire notion that the poor aren’t poor because of the hyper concentration of wealth, or worse, any failing of the system, but because of their personal failings. Even many among the poor are as apt as many of those in the middle-class, and the well- to do, to self-debase themselves for their poverty. They blame it on their misfortune, bad luck, lack of education and skills, or alcohol, and drug problems.
The mildest criticism of big business and the wealthy insure a slap on of the socialist tag. The American economic sacred cow is that laissez-faire wealth is tantamount to a divine right of kings, and any attempt to touch it is economic heresy. A big swatch of the working class has bought deep into the notion that they are really not workers, but part of the middle class. They bristle at the idea of giving their hard-earned tax dollars as handouts to the poor, especially the minority poor. It’s again the old saw, just work hard, educate yourself, stay clean and sober, and you too can pull yourself and make something of yourself in America. Politicians have long pandered to that sentiment. They have drilled home the notion that it’s the kiss of death to be seen as an advocate for tax and income fairness. That invites being plastered with the socialist tag.
Sanders stands this on its head with his crusade against wealth inequality and the unfettered greed of Wall Street and big corporate CEOs. It’s this drumbeat attack that has touched a nerve with a lot of Americans. He made sure that of that by smartly resisting every attempt by many within and without the Democratic Party to get him to backpedal from, play down, or outright drop any talk of socialism on the presidential campaign trail. He’s gambled this. That by proudly tagging himself with the socialist label he’ll have done a monumental part in the remake of America even if he doesn’t win the White House. In fact, the win is making socialism no longer a dirty word with many. And he’s done that, but for how long is the real question?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College (Middle Passage Press. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. He publishes a weekly political blog, thehutchinsonreport.net