Bernie Sanders and the Art of the Possible

Ta-Nehisi Coates hit Bernie Sanders pretty hard this week for rejecting the idea of paying “reparations for slavery.”  He didn’t like Sanders’ response – that Congress would never agree to such payments, the discussion would prove divisive, and we should instead invest in rebuilding cities and creating new jobs.  I’m sympathetic to the reparations argument – given that much American wealth and capitalism depends in no small measure on slavery it makes sense to compensate those who worked in slave labor camps to help build it.  But as a practical matter the chances of developing an effective reparations policy and getting it through Congress do in fact look pretty dim.

Sanders also took a hit from the Clintons, who sent daughter Chelsea out to make the somewhat misleading claim that he would “dismantle ObamaCare,” not to mention Medicare and private health insurance.  To be sure, Sanders’ idea for an American Health Security Trust Fund (AHSTF), or single-payer universal health care, would replace the Affordable Care Act eventually.  It would do so by expanding Medicare to every American, so I’m not sure how this “dismantles” that program.  And it’s also not clear that this would mean the end of private health insurance firms.  Even a universal health care system would have room for private sector supplements to whatever benefits the public sector provided.  But part of the critique is that AHSTF is a political pipe dream that could never pass in the existing political climate.  “I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in real life,” Clinton said.

Finally, Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money fires a similar shot across Sanders’ bow.  Asking “So What Would Happen if Bernie Sanders Won,” Loomis expresses two concerns: that Sanders would not be prepared to quickly appoint judges and executive officers, and that his base would abandon him within a year, dooming his presidency.

I have to agree that no liberal policy can easily get through the many American political veto points in the existing political climate.  But that’s no reason to think we shouldn’t want Bernie Sanders to control one of these veto points.  Further, I would argue that the US is more likely to implement policies like reparations for slavery and universal health the long run if Bernie Sanders succeeds Obama as President.

This is because social and political change – and the policy changes that follow – depend less on who holds leadership positions in government than it does shifts in our shared understandings about what “right” looks like.  Presidents and other political leaders don’t drive this kind of change with their hard power.  It comes from the bottom up as people change their attitudes and thinking about the ethics and morality with respect to things like racial equality, enormous wealth, the role of religion in public life, the definition of gender, and other organizing principles of social and political life.  Policy change becomes possible after attitudinal shifts create space for discussion, passage, and implementation of new approaches.

Americans have already shifted their thinking on many of these topics since the rise of conservatism in the Seventies and Eighties.  Now Bernie Sanders has begun a discussion that will lead to a shift in the way Americans think about how the we should organize the US economy by normalizing a particular brand of democratic socialism.  Coates suggests that Sanders’ self-identification as a “socialist” divides the nation as much as any discussion of reparations, and he has a point.  But the takeover of the US economy by billionaire rent-seekers who prioritize expanding their own already-incomprehensible wealth over general prosperity has already called into question the fairness of the US economy and the rules that govern it.  Americans want this to change.

No true free market has ever existed, and none ever will.  Societies organize their markets under a set of rules, and since about 1972 conservatives have worked very hard to organize these rules in a way that benefits those who control capital by privatizing profits while socializing risk.  So banks generate huge profits when their investments pay off, but taxpayers cover losses when the bottom falls out.

The Sanders brand of democratic socialism differs from others in two ways.  First, it has nothing to do with collective ownership of the means of production.  It does not seek a command economy with a government control of automobile factories and bureaucrats setting output quotas and prices.  Instead, the Sanders brand of democratic socialism attempts to socialize both the risks and rewards of capitalism while leaving market incentives in place.  Property and business owners should profit by correctly judging supply and demand and effectively allocating resources.  But labor should receive appropriate compensation for their productivity, and the general population should not bear the cost of losses.  Under our current system an imbalance in market power distorts markets and misallocates resources – workers who make things and provide services see stagnant wages as their contribution to the economy doubles.  The same rules create incentives for allocating more and more resources to the finance sector – e. g. higher salaries – when this might actually slow economic productivity.

And of course Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism is, well, democratic.  That is, a free polity makes these rules in an open process with expansive rules for participation (voting).  This is rule making from the bottom up in a collective expression of will by as broad a base of citizens as possible.  The oligarchic system we have today – the one Bernie Sanders has challenged – means control by a handful of super wealthy individuals who have a real chance to buy results and career politicians who choose their own voters. This looks a lot more like Soviet-style socialism than anything Bernie Sanders has proposed.

If Bernie Sanders can articulate a case for a democratic socialism that gives regular citizens a louder voice and more fairly distributes power in the free market he’ll help make more egalitarian policies more likely.  If he can win the Presidency while doing so and appoint a few judges and EPA officials, however imperfectly, more the better.


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