For fifty years, throughout the ‘Cold War’ and even during its aftermath, the word “socialism” was completely taboo in the USA. Those tending towards the left of the political spectrum were typically referred to as ‘liberals’. You might get away with describing yourself as a socialist in Europe. But not in the USA.
Now however US Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders is openly describing himself as a “democratic socialist”. And, what’s more, he has a left democratic socialist program.
His website sets out policies in favour of reducing income and wealth inequality, making public college tuition free and debt free, getting big money out of politics and restoring democracy, increasing the minimum wage, employment creation through provision of public infrastructure, combating climate change, a fair and humane immigration policy, racial justice, fighting for women’s rights, fighting for LGBT equality, caring for veterans, Medicare for all with a single payer system, disability rights, expanded social security, lowering prescription drug policies, making Wall street and large corporations pay their fair share of taxes.
The means by which Sanders proposes to pay for his proposals can be found here.
Sanders is unlikely to win the Democratic Party nomination. Most observers believe that, despite his early success in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hilary Clinton will win the nomination, due mainly to her higher level of support amongst minorities, Latinos and African Americans and particularly as the primaries move South.
But the remarkable thing is that Sanders is even competitive and even more so, the extent to which he has succeeded thus far in galvanising support amongst younger registered democrats.
In Iowa, Mr. Sanders, who is 74 years of age, defeated Mrs. Clinton among voters ages 17 to 29 by 70 percentage points. This was greater than the 43-percentage-point margin by which Barack Obama won that age group in Iowa in 2008.
Sanders beat Clinton by a huge margin, 84% to 15%, among New Hampshire voters under age 30, according to ABC News exit polls.
There are likely two main reasons why Sanders has experienced unprecedented success running on a socialist platform. Neither of them relate as much to a particular attraction to socialism as they relate to a repulsion at the rapacious and highly unfair nature of US capitalism.
First, following the GFC in 2008, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement ran a concerted campaign criticizing the wealth of the 1%. Whatever criticisms might have been made of the lack of concrete achievements of this movement, it appears it did succeed in imprinting in the minds of many, and especially in the minds of young people, the unacceptable levels of inequality in the USA and the extraordinary wealth of those at the very top.
Second, the recovery from the 2008 GFC has resulted in most of the benefits of the recovery being concentrated at the top. Students are accruing high levels of debt and many have poor prospects of obtaining employment commensurate with the qualifications they have paid so heavily for.
A report released in 2013 indicated that nearly half of recent college graduates were working jobs that do not require a degree and that many of the jobs they do have are not worth the price of their diplomas.
In 2013, two-thirds of students graduating from American colleges and universities are graduating with some level of debt. The average borrower will graduate $26,600 in the red. Ten per cent of graduates accumulate more than $40,000 in debt. One percent accumulated more than $100,000. With compounding interest total repayments on the average $26,600 debt is about $38,600. The level of student debt for the country as a whole exceeded the $1.2 trillion mark. and the $1.2 trillion figure does not include funds students must divert away from retirement savings, parent borrowing, or credit card debt. Student debt now accounts for the second highest form of consumer debt behind mortgages.
No wonder that, after reducing inequality, the next highest order issue on Sander’s website is his plan to make public college tuition free and debt free.