The Nation magazine recently identified the problem Bernie Sanders was having explaining democratic socialism. The Nation said Sanders was having trouble relating to many American voters because he uses Europe – particularly Scandinavia – for examples of successes of democratic socialism.
There are many overseas successes that would appeal to Americans if we were receptive to the lessons. Iran has a successful health care system that combines private enterprise and single payer systems. Iceland has a revamped and wildly successful banking system that has confounded the International Monetary Fund and thrived to the chagrin of the big banks. England’s transaction tax on financial trades is working. Israel broke up several of its biggest corporations due to a popular uprising by its citizens. These are all stories that progressives should embrace but the fact they occurred in Iran and Iceland diminished their exposure and resulting comprehension in the United States.
The Nation magazine advises Senator Sanders to hearken upon America’s radical roots and evoke the names of American radicals such as William Jennings Bryant, Mother Jones, and Eugene Debs in order to rally America’s enthusiasm for democratic socialism.
However, that advice is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. First, and sadly, much of America has lost its connection to our history. We are a progressive country that moves forward and many cannot relate to the vague names and events from prior centuries. Secondly, using American history as a context to warn people about current events can be cumbersome and require long explanations. Unfortunately, our collective attention span is damaged and unable to follow the cautionary threads through the fabric of history.
It’s time to admit that the common denominator in the American psyche is money. We have succumbed to the “financialization” of thinking. Every social program is proclaimed to be too expensive and wasteful. Military expenditures are wrapped in the flag and deemed untouchable. We ask “What is the cost?” rather than “How does it affect our country?” The culture of America is monetized, measured in cost effectiveness, and understood in profit and loss rather than right and wrong or justice and injustice.
And that plays to the socialists’ strengths.
After forty years of corporate domination of our political, working, and commercial lives, money and profit is the language conservatives understand. That is the language democratic socialists can use to demonstrate our case.
Let’s start with health care. America pays 50% more for health care per person than the rest of the world. In money-speak, we spend 18% of our GDP on health care and the rest of the world spends 12%. That 6 percentage point difference means we are wasting about $900 billion per year. That’s $3,000 per year for every man, woman, and child in the United States every year. That’s $12,000 per family of four. That’s $1,000 per family lost each month due to inefficiencies in the private health care and pharmaceutical system. Ask a conservative to explain or justify the money – especially in the light of worse health outcomes.
Bernie Sanders may explain his position as “successful in Sweden” but Sweden gets tarred by conservatives as “socialist” and gets dismissed before it gets a proper hearing. He also stumbles when asked how to pay for single payer health care. He’s naturally loathe to say “higher taxes”. Instead, he should simply tell people they can continue to pay their health insurance companies, it will be less than they’re paying now, and the health insurers can compete for the administrative rights. Conservatives cannot dispute the cold hard dollars.
Another example might be made in context of Ted Cruz’s fervent desire to eliminate the IRS. Bernie Sanders can make the exact opposite case. Bernie Sanders can say that every incremental dollar invested in the IRS yields a $7 rate of return for the American people. Sanders could then pose the financial question, “What does Ted Cruz have against the American people earning a profit?”
Conservatives understand that. They would also understand the positive socialist finance in terms of profits from the United States Postal Service, public banking, public utilities, municipal internet service providers, antitrust enforcement, elimination of ethanol subsidies, and the list goes on and on.
The economics of democratic socialism is – over the long term – far more profitable than the economics of pure capitalism. We need to talk about the finance and the numbers and ask conservatives, “What do you have against profits?” They’ll understand that and they’ll struggle to respond in their own language.