Richard Bogartz: What does it mean to be a Democratic socialist?

  • In this 2016 photo, Bernie Sanders, left, poses for pictures while working the crowd after a speech Monday at the Mullins Center. File photo/JERREY ROBERTS

Friday, March 01, 2019

Now that Bernie Sanders, a self-confessed Democratic socialist, with all that the sinister label implies, has announced his candidacy for the presidency, what can we expect from the gentle Republicans?

Well, on the basis of how they have treated Democratic presidential candidates in the past — even the election winners, at least going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt — we can certainly expect them to call him a socialist, and then almost immediately convert that label to communist.

But Bernie’s situation seems a bit strange. Here we have a candidate calling himself some kind of a socialist before the Republicans can even brand him as one. It feels faintly reminiscent of Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope boxing maneuver against George Forman in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. But not exactly. Ali would have had to have been punching himself while letting Forman hammer away at him.

So what is Bernie confessing to? What is a Democratic socialist? There are lots of online descriptions, but why not get one from the horse’s mouth, the web page of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically — to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.”

Well that certainly sounds suspicious. Radically disruptive if you ask me. With more suspicious lines, they deny that socialism means the government will own and run everything; that socialism has been discredited by the collapse of communism; that people will lose their incentive to work; that they are in competition with the Democratic Party; and a number of other concerns that the term socialism might bring to mind.

What do you suppose makes them think that this greatest democracy on Earth is not being run democratically? And come to think of it, there are some others who have been bandying about similar ideas.

Now take this Jimmy Carter fellow. You know, the old guy former president who builds houses for Habitat for Humanity because he thinks housing is a human right. He says that the Citizens United Supreme Court case turned America into an “oligarchy.”

“It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president,” Carter said in a 2015 radio broadcast. Carter added that the power of money isn’t limited to just the presidency, claiming “the same thing” applies to lawmakers on the state level and in Congress.

Well, what do you expect when you let old guys have a public forum?

I’d be willing to chalk up Carter’s mumblings to senility if he was the only source for the oligarchy charge. (Now that I am in the third year of my ninth decade I am well aware of the mental shortcomings of the aged and virtually never trust anything I say.)

Alas, there is science coming out of Princeton and Northwestern universities to support Carter. In an article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” the authors contrast four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics — which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism.

These offer “different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens, economic elites and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.”

The authors used a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicated that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Makes me think oligarchy. Also brings to mind issues such as gun control, universal health care and climate change.

I wonder if this has anything to do with the result of a Gallup Poll, cited by Natalie Kitroess in the New York Times on Feb. 24, that stated that people 18 to 29 view socialism as positively as they view capitalism. Makes me think “trend?”

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