Democratic Socialism and the 2016 US Presidential Election

Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialism, and the Other America (Part Two of a Five Part Series)

In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, which basically identified the causes of poverty and inequality in the United States as the result of unregulated free market capitalism. This book in turn had a significant impact on the thinking of John F. Kennedy and the role of government in promoting greater social justice. But it was the Johnson Administration and the War on Poverty programs (Medicaid, Medicare, Food Stamps, Expanded Social Security Benefits, etc.) that followed the Kennedy Administration’s lead. What the Johnson Administration did was address the issues facing The Other America, such as the fact that the economic system in the United States had created two parallel Americas: one in which socialism existed for the rich; and where individualistic capitalism existed for the poor. Harrington further argued that this bi-polar arrangement was destroying not only the foundations of the US economy but the very foundation of civil society. And it was MLK, influenced by Vincent Harding and James Cone, who echoed this in his 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, arguing that racial justice and economic justice must not be separated from the other in promoting global social justice.

In The Other America, Harrington drew on three major sources to support his argument on two Americas: statistical analysis of current trends in poverty; critiques of the market economy by way of Utpon Sinclair’s The Jungle; and the penetrating historical analysis by historian Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a penetrating critique of the Gilded Age. But what people did not know at the time of the publication of The Other America, was that Harrington was a socialist – a “democratic socialist” – and founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The DSA argued that the Democratic Party was held captive by its clientele, the wealthy and elite in America, and that it had become unresponsive to the rights of labor, increasing poverty, inequality, and racism in America. In fact, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were becoming increasingly similar according to the DSA. Yet, it was Harrington and others on the New Left, such as the scholars at the New School for Social Research, and the critical social theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas, and Marxists such as Paul Sweezy, Paul Baran and Harry Magdoff, who argued that the structural nature of capitalist arrangements fomented class conflict and class warfare. In fact, Harrington, along with these other scholars, argued that intrinsic to competitive market capitalism is an ongoing struggle between labor and capital, profit maximization over labor, and the liberal right to private property to the exclusion and marginalization of labor. Systemic poverty was no longer a random phenomenon beyond human understanding, and Harrington had made this form of economic analysis de riguer within academic and journalistic settings. Even in his appearances on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, Harrington consistently argued not only for the moral grounding of a just economy but also its sound economic sense. And all of this had a huge impact on a young Bernie Sanders.

Sanders is one of these DSA styled socialists, not the type that promotes a state run system that owns and controls the means of production and every aspect of people’s lives. Far from the raging Bolsheviks and Trotskyites at the turn of the twentieth century, Sanders has explained his version of DSA style socialism on numerous media outlets over the years. So the media know well what he is all about. He has a public record. His position is clear, and his untiring explanation of his DSA position is basically a repeat of The Other America, which calls for economic rights in a democratic society, exactly what FDR called for in his Economic Bill of Rights. And if the market cannot accommodate these rights, then the government of the United States, or any democratic government for that matter, has a moral duty to provide fundamental human needs as economic rights. This is exactly the same form of social democracy that has developed in the Scandinavian countries, Canada, New Zealand, etc., and it is amazingly similar to what the Catholic Church prescribed in 1965, at the end of Vatican II in a document titled Gaudium et Spes (Church in the Modern World). Jesuit Theologian Daniel O’Hanlon and Vatican observer Gary MacEoin have argued that Harrington’s The Other America not only influenced Pope John XXIII, who commenced the Vatican II Council in 1962, but also Pope Paul VI, who concluded the Council in 1965. What an interesting parallel between Harrington of the DSA, and some savvy popes who understood that the common good on a global scale demanded a social mortgage.

Fast forward to 2016.

As a result of the Great Recession in 2008, most Americans today have literally struggled for their economic lives in one way or another. The manifestations have been felt painfully in wage-reductions, job loss, depleted 401K accounts, raided pensions, short sales on homes, foreclosures on homes, survival credit card debt, financial bankruptcy, healthcare bankruptcy, family financial stress, repossessions, economic and emotional scars of the phony war in the Middle East, soldier deaths, wounded veterans, etc. At the same time, billionaires and the 1% have been doing better than ever with record economic growth, publicly funded bailouts of corporations, and multibillion dollar tax breaks to boot. In contrast, the pain that everyday people have experienced is real. But the only political candidate today that seems to have identified this devastation and translated it into real political issues of substance is Bernie Sanders. He has tapped into this pain and has thus been able to pound away on some of the most pressing policy issues of our time. Sanders has continually repeated the chorus of injustices that people have experienced as a direct result of the billionaire conquest of our democratic society and the financial destruction of the middle class. Suffice it to say, the poor and underclass in America have almost completely slipped under the radar. The result of this has been that two different Americas have re-emerged, and the use of the term “re-emerged” is intentional here because this has all happened before in the history of the US.

Not a single-issue candidate.

In addition to the class conflict-warfare theme underlying Bernie Sanders political campaign (which is really what Citizens United and campaign finance reform is all about) are several other related issues. Bernie Sanders opposed the Iraq War Authorization, Wall Street Bailout (TARP), Patriot Act 2001, Patriot Act Reauthorization 2006, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Death Penalty, Keystone XL Pipeline, Border Fence Legislation 2006, and Offshore Oil Drilling. He supports: breaking up big banks; reauthorizing Glass-Steagall; and rescinding Citizens United and the corporate takeover of democracy in the US. He opposed the Brady bill simply because it made owners of gun shops criminally liable for guns they sold to non-criminals. But the key point is this: Sanders understands the human economic tragedy suffered as a result of the 1%. Bernie Sanders has a movement going that will not be stopped, regardless of whether or not the media provide a shallow analysis of his campaign. Even if he is not elected president of the United States, his influence will carry on because the issues are like raw wounds, compounded by Citizens United undermining of legitimate democratic governance. What constitutes illegitimate governance is corporate money paid to congressmen, congresswomen, and senators, in order to do the business of big business as a priority, not the people’s business. See some of the relevant research published by Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Guilded Age, Princeton University Press, 2008; Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality, University of Chicago Press, 2009; Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, 2014, 564-581; and Edward Martin, “Oligarchy, Anarchy, and Social Justice,” Contemporary Justice Review, 2015, 55-67.

What the establishment elites and media want desperately to avoid is the class conflict-warfare theme underlying all of this. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie mentioned at a recent Republican debate, February 8, 2016, that raising taxes on millionaires is “a failed idea and a failed policy; it’s class warfare.” Imagine that! The rich are now being oppressed! So the establishment plays victim and wants to avoid any historical narrative of actual life-and-death struggles that took place throughout the history of the United States, resulting from class conflict-warfare, and tragically, to which the United States is reverting. This narrative is becoming uncomfortably reminiscent. Big business, government, military, bureaucracy, and the money media (military-industrial-bureaucratic-media complex) do not want a systematic analysis of the economic issues and the underlying causes of poverty and inequality taking place in the United States. After all, why would they jeopardize their profit margins?

Their bottom line is profits, and they want to make sure their profit margins are steadily increasing. They do not want a systemic analysis of stagnant wages by American workers over the past forty years or trade deals leveraged on developing countries and fast-tracked fascist style through Congress as is the TPP. Yet, imagine if The Other America, “war on poverty” safety nets were missing when the Great Recession hit. Robert Reich has argued that the reason it was a Great Recession, and not another Great Depression, was precisely because The Other America, “war on poverty” “socialist” public policies were in place. Absent these socialist strategies, the economic damage would have been catastrophic. Other economists, such as Richard Wolff, Stephen Resnick, and John Roemer, argue that the safety net might already be a thing of the past. The ironic tragedy is that this has a boomerang effect on the rich themselves if workers themselves are unable to purchase or consume. Henry Ford understood this effect.  Workers need to spend. If not he would soon be out of business. Hauntingly, Marx and Engels’ prediction in the Communist Manifesto has become increasingly significant in that the bourgeoisie produces “its own gravediggers.”

So, what is really the heart and soul of The Other America? What are the underlying principles that made this analysis by Michael Harrington, and embedded in Bernie Sanders, so incredibly insightful? To start, it will be helpful to draw on some economists and their conceptual frameworks as the foundation for The Other America. For example, John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Heilbroner have argued that since capitalism has become an oligopoly, the entire system was in essence “too big to fail.” That is where that idea originates. Failure was not an option since the system would collapse on everyone. New Left critics like C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse have argued that the “market” invariably tends toward crisis, which is only satiated in warfare. Could this be why some US military generals are calling for women to now register for the draft? Marxists further argued that the fundamental tendency built into the very nature of capital accumulation is toward the crisis of overproduction and under-consumption, forcing the economic system known today as market capitalism to invariably work against its own interests. The result: economic collapse. John Maynard Keynes argued that this could be prevented and effectively managed through public policy; however, Harrington was not convinced of this at all. His vision was one of a democratic economy where workers were co-owners of the means of production, not simply as a right in that they create the “surplus value,” but that it also makes good economic sense for workers and business in maintaining a healthy economy. The operative presupposition: the more workers make the more they spend to keep the economy healthy. Higher financial returns to shareholders do not necessarily guarantee this.

Read:  Part One here

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality; Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border, writing for many alternative political newsletters and Web sites. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Edward Martin and Mateo Pimentel.