Why Bernie Sanders Matters More Than People Think
by Benjamin Studebaker
Every time I find a way to say that there is no one like Bernie Sanders, there are people who don’t believe me. Aren’t there other candidates who support the same policies he supports now? Some of them are younger. Some of them aren’t old white guys. Why can’t it be one of them, why can’t it be someone new? Over and over, I have tried to find ways to explain that there is a real difference between Bernie Sanders and everyone else. Today, as Sanders announces his candidacy for the presidency, I’m going to try one more time.
We have a tendency in American politics to focus too much on individuals and personal narratives, especially in presidential campaigns. Who’s in touch with ordinary people? Who is experienced? Who is a nice person? Who connects better with different identity groups? Who would you like to have a beer with? This is in large part because many Democrats like to think of all the candidates as different flavors of the same Democratic Party popcorn. Consequently they mostly just pay attention to which candidate they feel they can more readily identify with. But Sanders and his opponents represent two very different ideologies. Each of these ideologies wants control of the Democratic Party so that this party’s resources can be used to advance a different conception of what a good society looks like. This is not a matter of taste and these are not flavors of popcorn.
What are these two groups? Bernie Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist–he connects himself politically with Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, with the New Deal and the Great Society. To understand what that means, we need to know where this movement comes from. Under Calvin Coolidge’s right wing economic policy in the 1920’s, economic inequality in the United States spiked:
The left in the 1930’s understood rising inequality as the core cause of the Great Depression. Because wealth was concentrating in the hands of the top 1%, the amount of investment steadily increased while the amount of consumption stagnated. Whenever there is too little consumption to support the level of investment in the economy, investors struggle to find profitable places to invest their money. Investment is usually a positive thing–it helps businesses increase their production and create jobs. But with consumption weak, businesses have little reason to increase their production, because no one will buy the additional goods and services provided. So instead, businesses that receive investment tend to reinvest that money rather than use it to grow. That investment circulates through the financial system and accumulates in speculative bubbles–places like the stock market, housing market, commodities market, or various foreign markets. These assets become massively overvalued until one day, the markets recognize the overvaluation. The assets collapse in value and the bubble bursts. People relying on these assets to pay off other debts get into serious trouble, and a contagion can spread throughout the economy with horrifying consequences.
So what did we do? As you can see in the chart, between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, the United States drastically reduced economic inequality. It redistributed wealth from the top to the middle and the bottom, resulting in consistent wage increases and consequently consistent consumption increases. This allowed investment to be put to effective use–because the bottom and the middle were rising, they were able to support the additional spending that business owners needed to successfully expand. This was accomplished through a series of policies that if they were proposed today, might strike many Americans as socialist–Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, strong union rights, high minimum wages, high marginal tax rates on the wealthy (with a 90% top rate under Eisenhower), and strong enforcement of financial regulations and anti-trust laws. Many on the left had hopes of going further and implementing universal healthcare, tuition free college, or a jobs guarantee. Some in the party hoped that one day this would add up to socialism and others were just looking to make capitalism kinder and more sustainable, but all Democrats were in favor of policies that look quite left-wing by our standards today.
Democratic presidential candidates that can be associated with this ideological tradition include Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and maybe George McGovern. That’s it. Even the Republican Party to a large degree acknowledged the need for these policies during this period–Eisenhower and Nixon supported and even extended parts of this system that kept investment and consumption in balance. But starting with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the Democratic Party became something different, something that was no longer ideologically continuous with this.
I’ve written about what happened in the 1970’s in detail elsewhere–the short version is that in the 70’s there were two oil shocks, in which the price of oil went up very rapidly (the OPEC embargo in the early 70’s and the Iranian Revolution at the end of the decade). Rising oil prices created stagflation, because they drastically increased the price of goods over a very short span of time. This reduced consumption, damaging economic growth, while simultaneously leading governments to increase wages in an attempt to prevent workers from rapidly losing purchasing power, creating inflation. To solve this problem, governments needed to stabilize oil prices or reduce dependency on foreign oil. They also could have allowed real wages to fall temporarily until that was accomplished (in tandem with a strong social safety net to protect those at the bottom of the wage scale).
Instead what happened is that the right co-opted the oil crisis to claim that the entire project of balancing investment with consumption was fundamentally mistaken, that the problem was that there was not enough investment and too much consumption. The right embarked on a political platform of reducing union power, reducing the real value of the minimum wage, cutting welfare spending, reducing taxes on the wealthy, and deregulating the financial sector. Inequality, which in the US bottomed out in 1978, began rising rapidly and during the new millennium has frequently approached depression-era levels, having the same harmful effects on consumption that it had in the early 20th century and creating the same endemic risk of bubbles and financial crises.
Many people think that it is the Republican Party alone that is responsible for this, but beginning in 1976 with Jimmy Carter, the Democratic Party was captured by this same ideology, which academics call “neoliberalism”. It is now largely forgotten that it was Carter, not Reagan, who began deregulating the market. Indeed, during the 1976 democratic primary, there was an ABC movement–Anybody But Carter. Democrats who remained committed to the party’s egalitarian ideology rightly feared that Carter was too right wing and would effectively strip the party of its historical commitment to the continuation and expansion of the legacy of FDR and LBJ. However, they ran too many candidates against Carter, splitting the left vote and allowing Carter to win the nomination.
Bill Clinton took the party even further to the right. In 1992 he ran on the promise to “end welfare as we know it”, a total repudiation of the FDR/LBJ legacy. With the help of Republicans, Clinton was eventually successful in drastically cutting the welfare program. Clinton also signed important deregulatory bills into law, like the Commodities Futures Modernization Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Most economists blame one or both of these pieces of legislation with directly facilitating the housing crisis in 2008 (there is a robust debate about which one is more important, with economists like Paul Krugman leaning toward CFMA as the more important one while Robert Reich argues GLBA). Many of Bernie’s opponents supported these measures during the 1990’s and have in some cases continued to voice support for them. Joe Biden and John Kerry voted for this stuff. Bill Clinton signed all of this legislation into law. Bernie Sanders was against welfare reform and GLBA at the time (he voted for CFMA–it was snuck into an 11,000 page omnibus spending bill at the last minute).
The 2008 primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is sometimes billed as if it were a contest between two ideologies, but the most prominent difference between them was the vote on the Iraq War. On economic policy, there never was a substantive difference. The major economic legislation passed under Obama (Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act) did not address the structural inequality problem that the Democratic Party of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s existed to confront.
Wealth inequality, which decreased under FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ, increased under Carter, Clinton, and Obama:
On economic policy, contemporary establishment Democrats have more in common with contemporary Republicans than they do with the FDR/LBJ Democrats. Carter and Clinton took the party away from economic progressives. The Democratic Party, which was once the party that saw economic inequality and poverty as the core causes of economic instability, now sees inequality and poverty as largely irrelevant. Instead of eliminating inequality and poverty to fuel the capitalist system and produce strong economic growth, establishment Democrats now largely agree with establishment Republicans that the problem is a lack of support for business investment.
So Bernie Sanders is not merely running to attempt to implement a set of idealistic policies that a Republican-controlled congress is likely to block. He is running to take the Democratic Party back from an establishment that ignores the fundamental systemic economic problems that lead to wage stagnation and economic crisis. Those who say that the Democratic Party cannot be reclaimed by the FDR/LBJ types or that if it is reclaimed it will flounder in elections against the GOP are thinking too small. In the 1968 and 1976 Republican primaries, this guy called Ronald Reagan was running to take the Republican Party back from the Richard Nixon types who went along with the Democrats on welfare and regulation in a bid to return the Republicans to their 1920’s Calvin Coolidge roots. At the time, Reagan’s plan was considered madcap–everyone in the 60’s and 70’s knew that hard right Coolidge style economics leads to depression and crisis. But the stagflation in the 70’s created an opportunity for Reagan to convince Republicans and eventually the country as a whole to fully embrace a totally different ideology that was much closer to Coolidge’s politics than it was Eisenhower’s or Nixon’s. In the years since 2008, many Americans, especially young people, are willing to consider the possibility that neoliberalism–the economic ideology espoused by both the post-Reagan Republicans and the post-Carter Clinton-era Democrats–is fundamentally flawed and must be revised or potentially replaced entirely.
This can only happen if Democrats recognize that Bernie Sanders is not just a slightly more left-wing fellow traveler of Harris’ or Biden’s. This is not a contest to see who will lead the Democrats, it’s a contest to see what kind of party the Democrats are going to be in the coming decades, what ideology and what interests, causes, and issues the Democratic Party will prioritize. This makes it incredibly important. It is a rare opportunity to fundamentally realign one of the two parties. If we can figure out that nobody else is like Sanders and get behind him, we might actually be able to move one of the parties past neoliberalism.
Elizabeth Warren was a Republican until 1996. Kamala Harris has already begun courting Wall Street. Joe Biden voted with the party establishment for decades in the Senate. None of these people endorsed Sanders last time–they all preferred Clinton or stayed silent. Sanders’ opponents are neoliberals building on the legacy of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They don’t think the Democratic Party needs to change. Many of them got into Democratic Party politics to make it into the very sort of party it is today. Today they say they care about Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, but their actions tell a different story.
Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist building on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He understands that inequality is the core structural factor in economic crisis and that growth in real wages and incomes is required for robust, sustainable economic growth. He recognises that the Democratic Party must fundamentally change to tackle this problem. He has been an independent and kept himself separate from the party machine because he recognises how corrupt and lethargic it has become over the years. He’s running not just to change the country, but to change the Democratic Party into the kind of party that can deliver for poor and working Americans.
All the rest is noise. This is not about just this election, or just the next four years. This is about whether the Democratic Party is going to care about inequality for the next decade. We are making a historic decision between two distinct ideological paradigms, not a choice between flavors of popcorn. This is important. Choose carefully.