Richard Bogartz: Democratic socialism is not a strange intrusion

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign rally in Dearborn, Mich., Saturday, March 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya

Saturday, March 07, 2020

John Wycliffe wrote in the prologue to his translation of the Bible in 1384, “the Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

President Lincoln borrowed from Wycliffe and gave his immortal Gettysburg Address entreaty “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

What does government by the people mean? What does government for the people mean?

“By the people” means that it is the people who do the governing rather than some king or dictator or small, self-interested group. We can abbreviate “by the people” with the word “democratic.” Democratic government is government by the people.

“For the people” means that the point of government is to serve the people, to help improve their lives. How might we abbreviate “for the people?” The Free Dictionary gives as a definition for the word social “Of, relating to, or occupied with matters affecting human welfare.” A social democracy would be a government by the people that is occupied with matters affecting human welfare.

Would social democracy be socialism? Socialism usually refers to government ownership of the means of production. The word socialism occurs in numerous special contexts such as National Socialism, which refers to the Nazi government that dominated Germany from 1933 to 1945. In Russia it went from meaning communism to meaning state capitalism.

Bernie Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist. What is that? Where does he stand? Annalisa Merelli, a reporter for Quartz, business-focused English-language international news organization, says that Sanders “isn’t a socialist — democratic or otherwise. He’s a social democrat. Social democracy is a reformist approach that doesn’t do away with capitalism in its entirety ... but instead regulates it, providing public services and substantial welfare within the frame of an essentially market-led economy. Other leftist politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also fall into this camp. ... The platform (he) is running on is reformist, and what he is proposing is a US that looks much more like Canada, or Europe — which certainly are not socialist nations.”

In the United States the term socialist is often used pejoratively. A candidate with that word in their description can expect to be smeared with terms such as red, communist, pinko, commie, etc. A few years ago they would have been called a Russia lover, but the Republican candidate now has a lock on that label.

The intent of the smear is to get people thinking of the candidate as advocating a situation in our country resembling that in Venezuela or Cuba. Nothing could be further from the truth. The democratic socialist does not argue for communism. They are not arguing for the kind of system we know has failed.

As Thomas Seres says, in a letter to the L. A. Times, “I lived under socialism in the 1950s and escaped from it during the bloody Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Socialism in that form stinks. If the self-described democratic socialist secures the nomination, he should do everything he can to distance himself from the concept of ‘socialism’ as opposed to ‘democratic socialism.’ (His) plan of increased spending on healthcare, infrastructure and education (supported by practically all European governments) is not the same as Soviet-style (or Venezuelan or Cuban) socialism.”

When we think about the social democratic program, we should be thinking about concern for the basic needs of the people, like food, housing, health care, and the basic needs of the country, like infrastructure in good repair, clean air and clean water. We should think of the Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway, of Switzerland, of basically all of Western Europe.

Consider single-payer health care. Of the 33 well developed countries, only one does not have it — the U.S. What is so special about the U.S.? How can it be that the greatest economy on the planet cannot afford what so many others can? Government must check rampant greed, not by wiping out capitalism, but by restoring and improving the restraints that have increasingly been with us at least since FDR but have been undermined by the greedy.

Democratic socialism is not a strange intrusion into our lives. We the people have been benefitting from it for decades. Our challenge is reorienting government more to what we need and away from satisfying greed.

Richard S. Bogartz is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.