One of the most interesting things about Bernie Sanders is that he embraces a political label that is widely considered to be toxic in America: democratic socialist. The U.S. is one of the few western countries without a sizeable social democratic political party, and although social democratic measures like Medicare occasionally succeed, they do so under the rubric of liberal or progressive movements. So how is Sanders, who reemphasized his political allegiance during Tuesday night’s first Democratic debate, appealing to a broad swath of Americans?
An influential body of America historical scholarship, developed by figures like Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz, argues that the country has a fundamentally narrow centrist consensus built around liberal individualism. This political consensus runs from the center-left to the center-right but has no room for European politics of the left or the right, whether in the form of socialism or ethnic nationalism. The 2016 presidential election seems designed to falsify this consensus view of America politics, since we have both an ethnonationalist in the form of Donald Trump and an avowed democratic socialist in the form of Sanders.
That’s not to say that Sanders isn’t being challenged on this label at every turn. At one point on Tuesday, CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper could hardly contain his incredulity that Sanders would dare say that he’s not a capitalist. On another occasion, Sanders called for a revolution, prompting Jim Webb to deliver one of his few good lines of the night: “Bernie, I don't think the revolution's going to come.”
Webb has a point, in the sense that what Sanders mean by “democratic socialism” and “revolution” is radical only compared to other American politicians, but actually fairly mild. By “revolution,” Sanders means a greater participation in politics by those currently alienated from it. And by democratic socialism, he means a return to the expansive welfare state of the Lyndon B. Johnson era rather than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s policies of tinkering with the existing system. If we see Sanders simply as an LBJ liberal, he’s well within the consensus defined by Hofstadter and Hartz.
As Vox’ Ezra Klein cogently points out, the real divide between Sanders and Hillary Clinton comes down to the differences between a welfare state liberal and New Democrat Liberal. Given that a lot of New Democrats moved back toward welfare state liberalism after the crash of 2008, the divide is even narrower.
Consider the crucial part of the debate when Sanders and Clinton debated capitalism:
COOPER: You don't consider yourself a capitalist, though?
SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don't.
I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.
COOPER: Just let me just be clear. Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?
CLINTON: Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.
And I don't think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have.
But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it's our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn't run amok and doesn't cause the kind of inequities we're seeing in our economic system.
But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history...
COOPER: Senator Sanders?
CLINTON: ... of the world.
SANDERS: I think everybody is in agreement that we are a great entrepreneurial nation. We have got to encourage that. Of course, we have to support small and medium-sized businesses.
But you can have all of the growth that you want and it doesn't mean anything if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. So what we need to do is support small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of our economy, but we have to make sure that every family in this country gets a fair shake...
The areas of agreement between Sanders and Clinton are large: Both support a market economy, and both see capitalism as requiring regulation and reform. If Sanders doesn’t call himself a capitalist, that mainly signifies a greater distrust of big corporations and desire to make the rich pay higher taxes. Clinton leans in the same direction, although wouldn’t go so far as Sanders. So for all the sturm und drang of socialism vs. capitalism, we have two politicians heading in the same direction, one a few steps ahead of the other.