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Pierce writes: "What is remarkable about Sanders's platform is how unremarkable it would sound to any run-of-the-mill Democratic politician 40 years ago, and how moderate it would have sounded to Eugene V. Debs, the last major Socialist candidate for president."

Senator Bernie Sanders. (photo: Tom Williams/Getty)
Senator Bernie Sanders. (photo: Tom Williams/Getty)

There Is an Actual Socialist Running for President

By Charles Pierce, Esquire

01 May 15


ne of the funnier things in political journalism is the fact that, every time a Democratic senator runs for president, the National Journal -- home of Ron (Leadership!) Fournier -- concocts a survey purporting to show that the senator in question is the "most liberal" member of the Senate. John Kerry once was the most liberal senator. So was Barack Obama. And the funniest thing, of course, is that, while both of those men were running for president, Bernie Sanders, an actual Socialist, was a member of the Senate from Vermont. Today, of course, as Sanders announced that he would be running for president, the NJ decided to remind Americans that, yes, being a Socialist does in fact make you pretty damn liberal. In fact, it makes you "far left." Nice work, gang.

After all, the term "socialist" most often appears in American political conversations as a pejorative (As in "President Obama's socialist agenda," etc.). There's a reason for that: A majority of Americans hold a negative view of socialism. According to a 2011 Pew poll, 60 percent of respondents indicated they viewed the term "socialism" unfavorably. Of the terms they polled—Libertarian, capitalism, liberal, conservative, progressive—"socialism" was by far the most negatively received. Sanders will run a campaign to the left of Hillary Clinton, taking hard-line positions on fighting income inequality. "This is a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful, and is not working for ordinary Americans," Sanders told the Associated Press after announcing his candidacy. "You know, this country just does not belong to a handful of billionaires."

I suppose that if John Kerry can be the most liberal member of a Senate that also included Bernie Sanders, then anything's possible. What is remarkable about Sanders's platform is how unremarkable it would sound to any run-of-the-mill Democratic politician 40 years ago, and how moderate it would have sounded to Eugene V. Debs, the last major Socialist candidate for president.

"The challenges facing our country are enormous. It's not just that, for 40 years, the middle class has been disappearing. It's that 99 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent, and the grotesque level of wealth and income inequality today is worse than at any time since the late 1920s. The people at the top are grabbing all the new wealth and income for themselves, and the rest of America is being squeezed and left behind. The disastrous decision of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case and in other related decisions is undermining the very foundations of American democracy, as billionaires rig the system by using their Super PACS to buy politicians and elections. And the peril of global climate change, with catastrophic consequences, is the central challenge of our times and our planet. The middle class in America is at a tipping point. It will not last another generation if we don't boldly change course now."

Lyndon Johnson could have said that. John Kennedy could have said that. Certainly, it's milder than FDR's attacks on the "malefactors of great wealth." In 1912, while running for president in a superheated four-way campaign, Debs accepted the nomination of the Socialist party with a thwacking acceptance speech that makes what Sanders is saying sound like it was written by Evan Bayh.

The world's workers have always been and still are the world's slaves. They have borne all the burdens of the race and built all the monuments along the track of civilization; they have produced all the world's wealth and supported all the world's governments. They have conquered all things but their own freedom. They are still the subject class in every nation on earth and the chief function of every government is to keep them at the mercy of their masters. The workers in the mills and factories, in the mines and on the farms and railways never had a party of their own until the Socialist party was organized. They divided their votes between the parties of their masters. They did not realize that they were using their ballots to forge their own fetters.

That, as the kidz say, is the real shiz-nit right there.

What is Bernie Sanders asking of the country as he begins his presidential campaign? A fairer economic system pried loose from the people who nearly wrecked it all four years ago. Legitimately progressive taxation. That the country acknowledge, with its money, that we all need bridges and roads and water systems. Honest elections. Recognition that environmental crises are national crises. Theodore Roosevelt could have run on those issues, and once did.

A long time ago, I met a guy named Frank P. Zeidler. He was a Socialist and once he was the mayor of Milwaukee, the last Socialist to be elected mayor of a major American city. (Milwaukee elected three of them, as Alice Cooper once informed Wayne Campbell.) Zeidler won his first election, as Milwaukee County Surveyor, on the Progressive Party line, as a Bull Moose liberal. Once, I heard him say that, when he was coming up, what made you a Socialist was the fact that you believed your city should fix potholes and that it should have a fire department. As Bernie Sanders begins his run for president in an era in which people scream "Socialist!" as a kind of conjuring word to make moderate reforms vanish, it's probably important to remember that being a Socialist once meant that you shouldn't have to put out your own fires. That's Bernie Sanders's campaign -- he's the last Bull Moose in the forest. your social media marketing partner
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