George Will: Bernie Sanders is FDR’s unimaginative echo
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.” 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.