George Will: Bernie Sanders is FDR’s unimaginative echo |
George F. Will, Columnist

George Will: Bernie Sanders is FDR’s unimaginative echo

George Will
Sen. Bernie Sanders is greeted by audience members before a Fox News townhall-style event April 15 in Bethlehem, Pa.


That the Democrats’ two evenings of dueling oratory snippets this week are called “debates” validates Finley Peter Dunne’s prediction that “when we Americans are through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.” Already a linguistic casualty of the campaign is the noun “socialism.” So, quickly, before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign sinks, like darling Clementine, beneath the foaming brine, consider his struggle to convince Americans that socialism deserves to be the wave of their future.

One European explanation of America’s puzzling (to many European intellectuals) resistance to socialism was given in 1906 by the German economist Werner Sombart: “All the socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.” Recently, however, Sanders delivered a Washington speech explaining, in effect, that socialism is as American as a piece of frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese. Doing so, however, he demonstrated that socialism is a classification that no longer classifies.

Sanders’ socialism turns out to be a tweaked New Deal. He began, of course, by saying that the nation is in “a defining and pivotal moment.” Speechwriters actually get paid for such bromides; capitalist America remains a land of opportunity even for the untalented. What Sanders then offered as forward-looking socialism was a warmed-over version of what President Franklin Roosevelt advocated 75 years ago.

In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR called for “rights” to “useful” jobs, “good” education, “adequate” food and clothing and recreation, a “decent” living for farmers, a “decent” home, “adequate” medical care, “adequate” protection in old age. Details, such as how to define the adjectives and how to pay for what the nouns denote, were for another day. Sanders’ agenda for “completion” of FDR’s New Deal is a right to a “decent” job, “quality” health care, “complete” education, “affordable” housing, a “clean” environment, a “secure” retirement. Details later.

Sanders says “what I mean by democratic socialism” is “economic rights are human rights.” Really. That’s it. FDR said “necessitous men are not free men,” implying that government can and should remove necessity from the human story. Sanders, FDR’s unimaginative echo, presumably agrees.

The morning after Sanders’ speech, The New York Times reported something momentous: “Democratic socialism has become a major force in American political life.” This is amazing, considering that it was never more than a negligible force when capitalism seemed to be in a perhaps terminal crisis: In 1932, three years into the Depression, with the unemployment rate at 23.6% and the GDP 25.7% smaller than in 1929, as this column previously noted, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, received fewer votes (884,885) than its 1920 candidate Eugene Debs received (913,693) while he was imprisoned by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

Sen. Elizabeth (“I have a plan for that”) Warren, D-Mass., who describes herself as a “capitalist to my bones,” is a more authentic socialist than Sanders because she has more granular plans for government power (aka politics) to supplant market forces in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. So she, even more than the other participants in this week’s Democrats’ presidential scrums, would as president give the nation a helpful, if inadvertent, tutorial about this axiom: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.