Social Democracy for America

FEPS Secretary General

Bernie Sanders with John Nichols

It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism

Crown Publishing Group, 2023

Bernie Sanders is the most inspirational progressive politician in contemporary America. He is not just one of the country’s 100 senators but is also one of the outstanding thought leaders of US politics, able to articulate the agenda and arguments of today’s American progressives. He has been at the top of US politics for the last 20 years, and his prominent role is illuminated even more by the fact that when his latest book was released (21 February 2023), it topped the dominant online retail platform’s bestseller list in the categories of US national government, political economy, and economic conditions.

Socialism is a popular idea in the United States today, which is a fact to which we still need to become accustomed. When it comes to Social Democracy, most people have very low expectations within the American context. In the early 20th century German sociologist Werner Sombart theorised about the absence of Socialism in the US, and since then the idea of ‘American exceptionalism’ has been commonplace. Indeed, the American Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, a contemporary of Sombart, was almost a lone fighter against the two-party system, while in the 1960s and 1970s Michael Harrington was unable to match his intellectual strength with organisational capacity. Democratic Socialism in the US therefore remained interesting but uninfluential.

Curiously, a second American exceptionalism was later defined by political scientist Andrew Moravcsik to explain the lack of interest in football in the US. But since the mid-1990s when Americans started to become increasingly keen on football – or ‘soccer’ – we have also witnessed the growth of a left-wing movement that stands as a progressive alternative to neoliberalism and neo-conservativism. Protest movements against financial and corporate power, and against growing wealth and race inequality, started to adopt a common ideology, and to connect more and more explicitly with European Social Democracy.

Bernie Sanders is the central figure of this Socialist renaissance in the US. He was for decades seen as an odd local politician from the small state of Vermont, until he became a towering player in presidential contests on the Democratic side of US politics, and even a meme (in face mask and funny patterned mittens) following his appearance at the frosty inauguration of Joe Biden. After the 2016 presidential elections, Bernie Sanders published his credo (Our Revolution: A Future to Believe in). This time, in his new book, he further elaborates on the main problem he has been facing in his political life: how capitalism is built and how it functions. 

The focus of Sanders’s critique is not this or that bad decision of governments or character flaws of various right-wing politicians, but the system itself. Capitalism or, as he often refers to it in the book, “uber-capitalism” or “unfettered capitalism”, has brought us into the “age of deadly inequality” when, more than at any time previously, Socialists must distinguish themselves by choosing the side of the working class. The problem, as we know, is that many workers in America chose Donald Trump. 

Bernie Sanders calls Donald Trump “the most dangerous president in American history”. We learn from his book how the anti-Trump movement was built in the US, and that the campaign against systemic racism was a crucial part of this process. However, Sanders is certainly not someone who would say that if only we did not have Trump, everything would be fine. He knows perfectly well that President Trump was a consequence, and Sanders’s mission is to offer a way forward for American workers so that they do not feel let down by the system and fall for the deceitful tactics of the populist Right. 

With his independent Socialist background, Bernie Sanders was the biggest challenger of Hillary Clinton (2016) and later also of Joe Biden (2020). This is an important part of the story because it signals that the pro-Bernie movement first of all rejected the neoliberal status quo ante along with the neoliberalisation of Democratic politics in the US, and then managed to build an alternative within the Democratic Party – the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Undoubtedly, the most important reference point for progressive politics in the US is the New Deal, the emblematic policy of Democratic President Roosevelt (1933-45). Sanders’s book concurs with this view. However, Sanders is not a backward-looking, nostalgic author or politician. He has several contemporary sources as well, with Western European Social Democracy topping the list. Sanders reiterates the importance of full employment in Socialist economic policy, which is not a new idea, but he also incorporates new concepts like the job guarantee – a sign of progressive innovation in the 21st century.

Sanders provides an explanation to his followers about his integration into the higher echelons of the US Democrats. Important pages explain what he likes in Joe Biden and how he ended up as a chair of the Senate Budget Committee after Biden’s electoral victory over Trump. (More recently Sanders has become Chair of the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.) The point is that he joined forces with his original rival in order to create a ‘big tent’ and thus be able to defeat Trump together. Arguably, it is not Sanders’s own choices that are most important in this story, but those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, two much younger Socialist representatives in the US Congress, who explained their decision to support Sanders by their resolve to be “part of a mass movement”.

An example of Sanders’s wisdom is that he distinguishes between the daily political theatre (which fills the corporate media with many superficial topics) and what he calls ‘real politics’ (which is essentially a matter of ‘class war’). He invites his young readers not simply to be angry about capitalism but also to go beyond, explaining how workers can become their own bosses and take control over their own workplaces. Supporters of ideas like affordable housing, taxing robots, shortening the workweek, and introducing Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) will find themselves aligned with Sanders’s Socialism. 

It is worth pointing out the European sources of Sanders’s agenda. In the chapter on education, Finland’s Social Democratic policies appear as “best practice” that ought to inspire Americans, while in the domain of healthcare, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service is the alpha and omega. In political economy we often speak about an Anglo-Saxon model, but although the post-war Labour government introduced the tax-funded NHS in the UK, in the US such a universalist institution is lacking, despite Lyndon Johnson introducing Medicare for the elderly in 1965 and despite Bill Clinton showing an interest in the 1990s (but facing ferocious opposition after 1994). 

Undoubtedly, healthcare is a pivotal part of the American progressive agenda. This was already clear for President Barack Obama (2009-17), the author of Obamacare, which was qualified in Brussels as ‘a step in the right direction’. For Sanders, the goal is “Medicare for all”, driven by the conviction that “we can overcome an uber-capitalist system that puts profit ahead of health”.

It may be that Sanders is inspired by European Social Democracy, but we too have much to learn from him. It must, for example, be the commitment of progressives to deliver on the promise of “transformational change”, and not only to keep the government offices warm while the more conservative forces reorganise themselves. If the European reader is left with a feeling of missing something at the end of Sanders’s book, it could be because the book deals almost exclusively with the internal contradictions of (uber) capitalism, but does not say much about the external consequences of it. Making redress in this regard could be an important next stage in the development of US Social Democracy. 

Reading Sanders’s angry book on capitalism is as captivating as listening to a dear grandfather. Some parts of the text (for instance that on economic rights) are taken from his speeches, but Sanders’s speeches are almost comparable to those by Martin Luther King Jr. Other parts of the book were written as a kind of diary, which is particularly interesting for those who want to understand better the dynamics and the chemistry of American politics. 

Whatever our specific interest, it is important for all of us to read more about the inside of US politics, given that most Europeans have only a very superficial knowledge of this. Many assume that because they have seen so many American movies they must already know everything about the US. Sadly, despite the importance of America in the world system, most Europeans – including students, journalists, politicians, and accidental foreign ministers – lack a deeper intelligence or understanding. For those who would like to make amends and, in particular, have a first-hand introduction to progressive politics in America, this book is a perfect companion.

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