Talk of social democracy, reining in oligarchs going mainstream

Bernie Sanders’ bid for the U.S. presidency arrives in a different environment than just four years ago. In officially entering the crowded fray to head the Democratic ticket, the Vermont senator finds his views to have much more traction. Words like socialism, neo-liberalism and oligarchy are much

Last updated on May 03, 23

Posted on Feb 28, 19

4 min read

Bernie Sanders’ bid for the U.S. presidency arrives in a different environment than just four years ago. In officially entering the crowded fray to head the Democratic ticket, the Vermont senator finds his views to have much more traction.

Words like socialism, neo-liberalism and oligarchy are much more prevalent, and perhaps even more relevant.

Some of that can be attributed to the backlash against Donald Trump. The sleaze and corruption surrounding the president shine a light on the unsavoury practices of the current system, despite pledges to drain the swamp. Though many of those who voted for Trump remain ignorant, others have come to the realization they’ve been conned – things have not improved for the working and middle classes.

Just as demographic shifts have both fuelled MAGA voters and provided perhaps insurmountable hurdles for those who would turn back the clock, time has dictated a shift in public opinion as new generations replace older ones.

Young people today see the economic inequality and the resultant political system – bought and paid for by corporations and their lobbyists – that serves very few. Unburdened by the Cold War and its rhetoric – the wall came down before many of them were born – they can look at the concept of socialism with fresh eyes.

To the south of us, it’s these potential voters who galvanized the unlikely 2016 run of septuagenarian Sanders, the self-described socialist … though more often these days described as democratic socialist in the vein of European politics.

On the U.S. scale, Sanders is very left, though he’d be somewhere in the middle of the Canadian spectrum. More right if you factored in his record in support of American imperialist wars and the military industrial complex, the great sucking vortex on the economy there that dwarfs anything that the not-very-good-but-better-than-nothing Obamacare health system costs.

Still, it’s an accomplishment that the U.S. is seeing some use of the S-word. Sanders’ early success has seen his policies adopted by others now in the race to 2020, even if the party establishment is hell bent on avoiding anything that would rock the corporate boat.

“Public support for socialism is growing. Self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are making inroads into the Democratic Party, which the political analyst Kevin Phillips once called the ‘second-most enthusiastic capitalist party’ in the world. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, is skyrocketing, especially among young people,” writes U.S. political scientist Corey Robin of the current shift, reflecting on last fall’s midterm elections.

He attributes today’s attitudes to Sanders’ successes in leading up to the 2016 vote.

“It took Mr. Sanders to convince them that if tax credits and insurance exchanges are the best liberals have to offer to men and women struggling to make stagnating wages pay for bills that skyrocket and debt that never dissipates, maybe socialism is worth a try.”

While the issues are being talked about more openly now, including tax policies rolled out by the likes of Elizabeth Warren, it still remains to be seen if the Democratic party establishment will do an end-run around the public movement, as it did with Sanders in anointing Hillary Clinton in 2016. Then there’s the issue of winning an election in 2020, even if Trump is impeached, indicted or otherwise deposed before that time.

Calling for changes to decades of harmful neo-liberal policies is one thing, actually enacting them is another. The financial system and the oligarchs who are running the country into the ground will not go without a fight. Any president espousing such policies would be blocked at every turn.

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. For now, the potential of a leftward shift in the U.S. is intriguing.

Many of the topics discussed in the States are already commonplace here – universal health care, affordable schooling, even election finance controls, all be they nowhere near enough – but Canadians aren’t having the kind of conversation about equality and oligarchs that surround the Democratic campaign.

The talk of an oligarchy, of politics run by the moneyed class, is novel in the mainstream, though the U.S. media is doing everything it can to marginalize the message, especially as it applies to financial regulation and removing money from politics. Sanders’ message resonates with many, particularly the aforementioned young people. Plenty of people haven’t forgotten the 2008 meltdown, the Occupy movement and the downturn that continues today, the product of decades of decline.

In reality, the current economic system isn’t sustainable. Change, many critics have noted, will only come through mass movements, not the established political system. Some kind of revolution, if only the kind espoused by Sanders (his use of that word is also an eye-opener).

There’s some thought that Sanders and the more socialist candidates have no real hope of actually winning. But that’s not the point, some will argue. Rather, the idea is to make the mainstream parties and media sit up and take notice. If enough people are showing their disapproval and/or signalling what they’d really like to see in Washington, the policies of those considered outsiders will eventually make their way into the platforms of Democrats and Republicans. The goal of those politicians is to gain power, after all. They’ll do whatever it is they think they have to do in order to win. Today, that’s typically done unethically through big money, lobbying, scare tactics and disingenuous calls to patriotism, religion and similar touchstones.

It may be too much to expect elections to be fought strictly on platforms and ideas and the common good, but any movement in that direction has to be a plus.

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