Capitalists should listen to Bernie Sanders

There is an irony to the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders: The senator from Vermont is often cast as exotic because he calls himself a “democratic socialist.” Yet the most important issue in politics throughout the Western democracies is whether the economic and social world that social democrats built can survive the coming decades.

Let’s deal first with the tyranny of labels. “Socialist” has long been an unacceptable word in the United States, yet our country once had a vibrant socialist movement; its history has been well recounted by John Nichols and James Weinstein. Socialists had a major impact on the mainstream conversation. Reforming liberals, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, co-opted many of their best ideas, and it’s one reason they were marginalized.

Moreover, the vast majority of “democratic socialists” are now properly described more modestly as “social democrats” because most on the left believe in a successful private sector. But they also favor a government that achieves broad public objectives, from a clean environment to wide access to education, and regulates and redistributes in ways that strengthen the bargaining power of those who don’t own much capital.

When Sanders defined his own brand of socialism this year in a speech at Georgetown University, he made clear he’s in this camp. “The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this,” he said. “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”

Honestly, Bernie, you’re really a social democrat.

But there is great honor in this. The bargain between government and the market that allowed the United States and the other Western democracies to share growing prosperity from the end of World War II until recent years was essentially a social democratic achievement.

As economist J. Bradford DeLong argued in a recent essay on Talking Points Memo, these economies were “relatively egalitarian places when viewed in historical perspective (for native-born white guys, at least).” The chance to influence politics was “widely distributed throughout the population” while “the claims of wealth to drive political directions” were “kept within bounds.”

Yet the headline on DeLong’s piece — “The Melting Away of North Atlantic Social Democracy” — raises the question we need to debate far more explicitly in the presidential campaign: Was the great social democratic experiment an aberration in history? Are all the wealthy societies destined to become far more unequal, as they were in the late 19th century, because of globalization and technological change? Or can governments find new ways of ensuring a degree of justice and fairness?

These questions have absorbed my former colleague Steven Weisman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics for some years now. His new book, “The Great Tradeoff: Controlling Moral Conflicts in the Era of Globalization,” provides an excellent text for the discussion we need. Weisman painstakingly avoids dogmatism and is careful in laying out the often-agonizing choices we face.

For example: Globalization has “elevated the living standards of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide” but also “has helped suppress the incomes of low-skilled middle-class workers in rich countries.” Where do our loyalties lie? How do we balance obligations to our fellow citizens in the communities and countries in which we live against the interests of those far away? And how do the vast disparities of wealth that the system creates constrain the very process of democratic deliberation over what to do about it?

Weisman is more sympathetic to globalization than are many on the left, and I’m more drawn to its critics than he is. Still, Weisman does not let advocates of the market off the hook. Defending the achievements of globalization, he argues, requires facing up to its costs.

“The global economic system,” he writes, “should be one in which opportunities are more equal, the distribution of rewards is fairer, and the preservation of communities is more respected.”

How to achieve these goals is what politics needs to be about. The presidential campaign would be more edifying (and more relevant to the problems so many American face) if it focused directly on the need to renegotiate a social contract that once provided broadly inclusive prosperity but is now in grave jeopardy.

You don’t need to be a democratic socialist to believe this. On the contrary, the survival of democratic capitalism depends upon facing the difficulties the system is having in delivering on the promises it was once able to keep.

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Paul Waldman: How Bernie Sanders is mainstreaming ‘democratic socialism’

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Eugene Robinson: The rock-star appeal of Bernie Sanders