Bernie Sanders | Wikipedia/Gage Skidmore

Independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate (but is not a Democrat), is campaigning to be that party’s nominee for president as a “democratic socialist.” For this voter — who favored Clinton in the Illinois primary and who views FDR/LBJ/BHO liberalism as a centrist ideology (situated, appropriately, midway between so-called free market conservatism on the right and socialism on the left) — Sanders’ ideological affiliation raises concerns.

Setting aside full acquaintance with the details of Sanders’ public policy preferences — admittedly, not possessed here — is Sanders really a socialist and, if he isn’t, why would he so identify?

Socialism: a theory “of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government. …” (The American Heritage College Dictionary). Or, to put it crudely perhaps, a theory that would dismantle capitalism, rather than the more modest approach of reform and mitigation. 

Sanders has not called for nationalizing the production and delivery of goods and services on a scale that should be viewed as “socialism.” The delivery of such admittedly major features of our economy as health care, education, social safety net programs and consumer/worker/environmental protections — which Sanders laudably proposes to augment through government — are services not properly within the sphere of free-market capitalism to begin with: the mission, in each instance, is corrupted by profit motivation. These are activities appropriately relegated to government by a liberal sensibility, i.e., as conservative columnist George F. Will once helpfully, but disdainfully, put it: the belief in “capitalism without casualties.” 

Does the fact that Sanders labels himself a democratic socialist make a difference? It shouldn’t. The word “democratic” is descriptive of means, not ends. And in this country, with its traditions, he might just as well self-identify as an earthling socialist (to differentiate himself from all those socialists here from Mars).

If not authentically a socialist — a designation easily exploitable by the GOP — Sanders’ self-identification as one raises concerns regarding his judgment and personality.

Ideological confusion prevails even among many who follow our politics professionally. Conservatism benefits from this (as it does from voter suppression and other constraints on majority rule).

Apart from the bigots of various stripes, single-minded in their hate, the American electorate generally seems ideologically undiscerning, receptive to the most superficial and startling appeals. There are many examples, but the popularity, however temporary, of such obvious misfits and defiantly proud know-nothings as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Donald Trump, is stunning in a party that earlier presented Lincoln, Garfield, T. Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. 

And, as a more analogous example, how is it that a decorated Vietnam War veteran, John Kerry, could be so effectively swift-boated in 2004 by oozing-patriotic patrons of a ticket of two draft evaders? One easily imagines Karl Rove, Frank Luntz, and other GOP hit-men, salivating at the prospect of a teed-up “socialist” as the Democratic Party’s nominee. 

This leads to a final concern. Is Sanders’ personality one that gravitates to gadfly iconoclasm as a means primarily of personal differentiation? Perhaps, at last, he’s now trapped with the socialist label when it counts most. A suspicion, nothing more. But we’re not sending someone to jail; we’re selecting our party’s highly consequential nominee for POTUS. With the stakes so high, suspicions should not be entirely discounted. 

Gregg Mumm has been an Oak Park resident since 1992.

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