“If Wall Street does not end its greed, we will end it for them.” So says presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the avowed “democratic socialist” currently trouncing Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, and nipping at her heels in Iowa. The line, delivered to raucous applause at a Democratic campaign rally this past Tuesday in New York City, sums up the raison d'être of Sander’s platform.
We will end it for them.
By “we,” of course, Sanders means himself, as the next president of the United States, with the full force of the government at his discretionary executive disposal. By “them,” he means greedy capitalists. Under a Sanders administration, he is certain, the “greedy” will comply.
This is the difference between socialism and capitalism in a nutshell: Government compulsion versus voluntary cooperation.
You won’t hear this kind of clarity coming from many elected Democrats; particularly one running for national office. Even Sander’s anti-capitalist rhetoric is usually more cautious — hyphenated, the way we do things in the politically correct era. Sanders prefers to target straw man caricatures that are so, so easy to knock over. He’s against “casino capitalism” and too-big-to-fail banks on Wall Street. (Full disclosure: Me too!) “Greed is not good,” he boldly declares, effectively rebutting Gordon Gecko, a made-up movie character from the 1980s ill-situated to respond in real time.
Democrats have not always embraced the “socialist” nomenclature without ambivalence. “I am not a socialist,” Obama famously told an editorial board at the New York Times in 2009. He was clearly irritated by the label. So much so that he revisited the subject unprovoked at the Wall Street Journal’s 2013 CEO Counsel meeting: “People call me a socialist sometimes, but you’ve got to meet real socialists, you’ll have a real sense of what a socialist is.” No doubt this was a politically-motivated parsing of words; a necessity defined by the voting public’s animus towards the real, fessed-up-to brand of socialism.
But times have changed. Uttering the s-word is no longer considered forbidden fruit in some Democratic circles, and it’s put top party leaders in a bind. This dodginess irritates MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. This past Tuesday, the same day as Sander’s anti-capitalist rant, he asked Hillary Clinton to clarify the difference, if any, between Democrats and Socialists:
Now Bernie calls himself a Socialist. Nobody uses [that as] a derogatory term any more. It's his — he loves to have that label. He's never run as a Democrat, he runs against Democrats up there in Vermont. You're a Democrat … What's the difference between a Socialist and a Democrat?
Clinton’s answer is, well, dodgy.
HILLARY CLINTON: Well …
MATTHEWS: Is that a question you want to answer, or would you rather not?
CLINTON: Well, you know, I — you'd have to ask …
MATTHEWS: Well, see, I'm asking you. You're a Democrat, he's a Socialist. You — would you like someone to call you a Socialist? I wouldn't like someone calling me a Socialist.
CLINTON: But I'm not one.
CLINTON: I'm not one.
MATTHEWS: What's the difference between a Socialist and a Democrat.
CLINTON: Well, I can tell you what I am. I am a progressive Democrat.
MATTHEWS: How's that different than a Socialist?
CLINTON: I'm a progressive Democrat who likes to get things done and who believes …
CLINTON: … that we are better off in this country when we're trying to solve problems together.
Incidentally, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz had already tried the same dodge. MSNBC’s Matthews asked her the same question on the differences between a Democrat and a socialist last July. According to Real Clear Politics, Wasserman Schultz was “at a loss for words.” (Editor’s note: This. Never. Happens.)
There once was a time when socialists wore their party’s label proudly on their sleeves. Like Eugene V. Debs. In 1912, Debs, a longtime socialist radical, was nominated to be the presidential nominee of the Socialist Party. In his acceptance speech, Deb spelled out his agenda in the unambiguous language that still eludes some modern Democrats:
Capitalism is rushing blindly to its impending doom. All the signs portend the inevitable breakdown of the existing order. Deep-seated discontent has seized upon the masses … It is to abolish this monstrous system and the misery and crime which flow from it in a direful and threatening stream that the Socialist party was organized and now makes its appeal to the intelligence and conscience of the people.
According to Rolling Stone, Bernie Sanders has a picture of Eugene V. Debs, his hero, displayed prominently in his office.
So has the Democratic Party circa 2016 effectively merged with the Socialist Party circa 1912? Someone should ask Hillary Clinton.