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6/13/19

Bernie Sanders should obviously campaign as a socialist

Last evening, Hamilton Nolan posted a thing rehearsing the old logic-nerd conventional wisdom that all communication must begin with definitions. He thinks that "Philosophers long ago realized" this, which is true if by philosophers we mean Ayn Rand and literally no philosopher of language post-Wittgenstein.

He then insists that we cannot have coherent conversations about socialism, since it is completely undefined - which is not to say that it is merely controversial, but that it offers "no recognizable basis from which to proceed to specifics." This, despite the fact that we have field studies showing remarkable continuity in people's ideas about socialism, even down to extremely detailed policy specifics, and despite the fact that his theory that "socialism" has no shared meaning at all is patently impossible.

Finally, we get several paragraphs pulled straight from the No Labels "About" page on how socialists and capitalists really want the same thing ("the left broadly agrees what should be done, they are functionally the same") and are simply caught in a debate over tribal semantics (insert the usual sighing about "our talking and yelling and solemn speeches and vacuous cable news crosstalk...people arguing over what a blank page says"). In conclusion, everyone needs to stop talking about socialism.



Why is Nolan doing this? Because by December of last year, he had already decided that Bernie shouldn't run. And he had already decided that all of these candidates basically want the same thing:
Universal health care? Free college? Stronger regulation of Wall Street? Forceful downward redistribution of wealth? A true “Green New Deal?” None of these things are implausible now...[Sanders should ] endorse a Democratic presidential candidate who will best carry on his own ideas. I don’t really give a damn who it is. Warren, or Kamala Harris, or Sherrod Brown, or whoever.
Let's look at that first one. Anyone remotely familiar with Warren's record on this knows that she has long been a weather vane on universal health care, hedging every nod and gesture of support with the standard centrist death sentence: "I think you have to stay with what's possible...we've really got to consolidate our gains." (There is no ambiguity here: Warren says "no" when asked if she supports single payer, and even tries to deny her past statements of support.) And since the start of her campaign, Warren has only become even more evasive.

Who disagrees with her about this? Who does the public consistently associate with support for universal healthcare? Socialists. For better and for worse, this is the cause we're linked with more than any other. And there are some obvious reasons for this: socialists are fundamentally skeptical of leaving basic human welfare to the mercy of the private sector. We are skeptical about this in a way that even the most generous capitalist is not, and this means that we were fighting for universal healthcare even when liberals were rallying around Obamacare and insisting that they did not support the socialist agenda.

It is (sadly) true that Bernie Sanders is not likely to call for the abolition of private property or the absolute expropriation of the bourgeoisie. But even when it comes to far more modest ambitions, like the nationalization of the health insurance industry, there are real policy differences between him and his opponents that anyone who is actually interested in policy can identify pretty quickly. And Nolan's feigned confusion aside, it's trivially easy to explain these differences by looking at what Warren and Sanders say they believe. That's why both Sanders and Warren have themselves stressed this difference over and over: they think it's important, too!

As long as there has been socialism, there have always been critics who are eager to dismiss it as an exercise in pedantry that's irrelevant to the real world. Even a quarter century ago, The Simpsons were already parodying this as the brain-dead truism that it is. Today, we have a candidate who would be our first democratic socialist president, running on an issue that Americans have always identified with socialism, doing it on opposition to capitalist who are taking standard capitalist positions on healthcare - and he just might win. Why wouldn't we talk about it?