clock menu more-arrow no yes

The political history behind Bernie Sanders's call for democratic socialism

In a speech today at Georgetown University, Bernie Sanders laid out his vision of democratic socialism for the 21st century, and from the perspective of some lefties, he seems to have forgotten the socialism part. As Sanders himself said in the speech, "I don't believe government should own the means of production" a point that Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin, argues drains the socialist project of a crucial element of power.

But as Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University whose recent book When Movements Anchor Parties includes a detailed study of the origins of the New Deal coalition, points out, Sanders's project is really framed to try to bridge the gap between socialism and liberalism — to bring back a framework that was operative during the Great Depression and World War II but collapsed soon after.

"In 1944, in his State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt outlined what he called a second Bill of Rights," Sanders said. "This is one of the most important speeches ever made by a president, but unfortunately it has not gotten the attention that it deserves."

The speech was delivered in the middle of an enormous war that saw the United States closely allied with the Soviet Union. Consequently, Roosevelt's call for a "clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence" resonated not only with mainstream liberal Democrats but also with socialists, communists, and others on the far left of the political spectrum.

As a policy agenda, it went nowhere.

Democrats had the majority in both houses of Congress, but in practice a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans held sway.

But not only was the policy agenda halted, the political coalition that undergirded it collapsed during the Truman administration. The war between the United States and Germany ended, and the United States and USSR found themselves engaged in proxy wars in Greece and Turkey; then the United States and China were in a shooting war in Korea.

It's no coincidence that Sanders — like Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom — draws his strongest support from the youngest cohort of voters. To people under 30, the Cold War isn't even really a distant memory. It's simply an event from the past, no more directly relevant to present-day politics than World War I or the decline of the Roman Empire. That means the door that was shut back in the Truman years is opening up again.