The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have demonstrated that Senator Bernie Sanders is a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. If his recent momentum continues he might very well get the nomination.
Sanders has a lot of good ideas about domestic and foreign policy, but if he continues to use expressions like “revolution” and “socialist” without further clarification it will hinder him in getting the nomination and could prove fatal in November. This would be too bad, because he is not in favor of revolution and not a socialist in the sense that most Americans take these terms.
Revolution in its fundamental sense is a forceful overthrow of a government by methods not provided for in its constitution and laws. When Americans think of revolution they think of the execution of the French king and the subsequent guillotining of thousands of people during the terror of the French revolution. They think of the Communist seizure of power in Russia in 1917 and the millions of people arbitrarily killed or packed off to the Gulag Archipelago during the following civil war and then by Josef Stalin during the following 45 years. They think of the Maoist takeover in China followed by decades of disorder, starvation, and finally the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution.
Senator Sanders clearly is not calling for this kind of revolution. He does advocate large changes, “revolution” in a very different sense, the sense in which we speak of the Industrial Revolution. He wants changes brought about by the existing political arrangements enshrined in our Constitution: by people voting intelligently in their own enlightened interests.
When Americans think of “socialism” they tend to think of the disastrous Communist experiments in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, Cuba, and a few other countries that tried to prevent economic markets from functioning. Nobody in their right minds wants to repeat these disasters and Sanders is not out of his mind. His concept of socialism is to reform certain aspects of the legal environment within which our economic markets operate so that they will produce better results for the vast bulk of the population. This is the large change that he is advocating for the U.S. Despite his frequent criticism of big corporations, he does not appear to advocate nationalizing them like doctrinaire socialists in Western Europe used to favor.
If Sanders were to have his way, corporations would continue to exist and strive to maximize profits, but the changed legal environment would improve the results of their activities for the general public. The one exception would be that Sanders wants not merely to nationalize, but to destroy, the corporate medical insurance system.
In my opinion his proposed Medicare For All would be an excellent idea. The necessary tax increases for everybody (much bigger than Sanders admits) would be more than offset by the elimination of deductibles, of premiums paid by families, and of the reductions in cash wages allowing employers to remit premiums on behalf of their workers under the current system. If critics want to call this “socialized medicine” (unfair, since most medical providers would continue to be private, as they are under today’s Medicare For The Few), so be it. Socialism is a terrible way to organize an entire economy, but it could be highly appropriate for a specific economic sector like medical insurance.