The Inconsistencies in Bernie Sanders’ Platform: How “Socialism” Doesn’t Fit
Bernie Sanders, a United States senator from Vermont, came into the 2016 presidential race largely unknown and yet wildly popular among left-leaning Democrats and younger voters. While Sanders’s campaign has brought necessary attention to the income inequality that exists in the United States, as well as provided much-needed support to various social movements, there are some glaring inconsistencies within his policies and rhetoric that need to be addressed; paramount among these the inherent contradiction between his infatuation with Scandinavian style socialism and his dedication to cutting taxes for the middle class.
The issue that Sanders keeps rehashing in his debates and the one on which he has built almost his entire presidential platform is income and wealth inequality, specifically the way that a small proportion of the American population holds nearly all of its wealth. “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time,” his website states.
How does Sanders plan on fixing this? He wants the wealthiest 1% of the population and big corporations to pay more taxes: their “fair share,” as he puts it. This is not unreasonable and, at first glance, looks appealing to those who Sanders surely assumes is his main demographic -- the middle class. An increase of taxes on the upper class seems to imply a decrease on the middle and lower classes.
But this is not the only thing that Sanders has promised the country. Under the same section on his website, Sanders tells us that he will make tuition at public colleges and universities free, expand Social Security, and provide universal healthcare under a single-payer system. He admires these qualities of Scandinavian countries and often mentions them when giving his definition of democratic socialism. In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein he says:
“One takes a hard look at countries around the world who have successful records in fighting and implementing programs for the middle class and working families. When you do that, you automatically go to countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and other countries that have had labor governments or social democratic governments, and what you find is that in virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours.”
While these countries certainly sound nice to live in, they could not exist in the way that they do without heavily taxing the middle class. Someone in Denmark earning $60,000 will pay a 60% marginal income tax rate. Not to mention that Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland all have lower corporate tax rates than the United States. Enacting all the policies that Sanders considers necessary for his socialist America, complete with newer and bigger welfare institutions, would require huge amounts of money, all of which he could not make simply from taxing 1% of the population. This kind of capital requires tax raises among all classes, including the middle class, as they are the only group large enough to generate that money needed to create the system Sanders is promising to build. He has admitted grudgingly that tax hikes would hit everyone in order to enact some of his proposed reforms , but he has not hit upon how regressive the tax system would need to be.
Sanders may find reconciliation of Scandinavian democratic socialism and his own domestic priorities difficult because of socialism itself. Based on a speech given at Georgetown University, one might argue that Sanders cannot call himself a socialist because he seems to fundamentally misunderstands socialism. While the definitions of socialism vary widely across the world, they should all have in common one thing: they pertain to ownership within an economic system. The textbook definition of socialism --“a social and economic system characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production” -- is not what Sanders is talking about. He brings up things that have no bearing on socialism at all: universal health care, climate change, mass incarceration, and free tuition at public universities, to name a few. All important issues that deserve to be addressed, but none of them really have any impact on socialism, which was the point of Sanders’ speech. Socialism is about ownership whereas Sanders mostly talks about creating a welfare state, and when he does talk about the economy, he talks about making it less marked-oriented. “I don’t believe the government should own the means of production,” he says in his speech. That is something on which socialism is dependent. “When you go to your public library, when you call your fire department or the police department, what do you think you’re calling?” Sanders asked in Iowa. “These are socialist institutions.” They really aren’t. The elements that tie into his vision of a welfare state could feasibly exist in the most capitalist country in the world.
Sanders needs to make more of a point to distinguish himself as a proponent of democratic socialism, not just because his definition of socialism seems a little rusty, but also because of the stigma that surrounds it. It’s interesting that he goes out of his way to self-identify as a socialist and an independent, despite consistently voting Democrat and caucusing with the Democrats, considering socialism’s not-so-stellar reputation in the United States. In a poll, 36% of New Hampshire Democrats said that a socialist president would be unacceptable. While younger Americans have a better opinion of socialism , the older generations still look at the word and think Soviet gulags. It is safe to say that Sanders has helped to change the public opinion of democratic socialism, but it still remains a real issue to be tackled in his campaign.
Perhaps he doesn’t need to tackle it; maybe he should just drop it. Sanders cannot have both his idea of a democratic socialist state (one with huge welfare institutions) and lower taxes for the middle class. They are irreconcilable. While they both sound nice in theory, his supporters deserve to know that in voting for him, they are voting for only one of the two. Sanders should let them know which one will win out. You can “feel the Bern,” but don’t let his progressive rhetoric hide his weaknesses, mainly his lack of comprehensive planning needed to back up his lofty economic promises.