Stop Calling Yourself a Socialist, Bernie Sanders. You’re Not.

TJ Lindstrom, Guest Columnist

Ah, socialism. One of the more loaded terms in our contemporary political discourse. Yet, it seems a rather nebulous one. Its definition is difficult to pin down. 

For those on the right, it is a boogeyman of sorts, an embodiment of everything despised about the other side. For those on left, it is a badge of honor, a shibboleth demonstrating devotion to liberalism. And, for those of us in between, it’s something of a shadow lurking over the current political climate. The more I think about it, the more I begin to see just how problematic such a shadow can be.

The Democratic Party’s support is coalescing behind a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” and the Democratic Socialists of America elected in 2018, for the first time, two of its members to Congress. It’s clear that “socialism” has firmly planted itself into the political mainstream. There is only one problem though: none of these candidates are actually socialists.

Though it is related to communism, socialism is a much broader ideology. The origins of socialist thought trace back to Ancient Greece, but modern socialism arose in response to the Industrial Revolution. The socialist system sought to offer an alternative to the rapidly expanding, and in many ways problematic, capitalist system. 

Socialism, at its core, advocates for communal ownership of the means of production, which includes everything from natural resources to factory machinery. It seeks to replace the individual market ownership of the economy with a system where society-at-large owns the economy. Under a socialist system, goods and services are not something to be bought and sold but rather, something to be made and shared.

If you compare this fairly standard notion of socialism with the platforms of, say, Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you’ll notice some glaring issues. For starters, neither of them actually support seizing the means of production from individual ownership. Neither of them support total public ownership of the economy. In fact, neither of them want to abolish capitalism at all. So, I think it’s safe to say that Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez do not resemble anything close to a true socialist. 

Sure, they have some ideas that are squarely socialist. For example, they both support a single-payer healthcare system, which would essentially amount to the abolition of private healthcare. But, wanting to socialize one industry is a far cry from wanting to abolish the entire free-market system.

I suspect that this holds true for most self-identified “socialists” in America. They see serious problems with the capitalist system and are seeking radical reform, but very few of them want anything to do with the wholesale abolition of the free market. And for good reason. Capitalism, with all of its flaws, has built the world as we know it. 

It has lifted billions out of poverty, led to untold technological advances and increased life expectancy around the world. Indeed, the very building you sit in now, the very paper or computer you read this column on and even the pencil you took your last exam with, is the product of a global supply chain organized by the invisible hand of capitalism. None of which could be possible under a centrally planned, socialist economy.

Now, this is not to say capitalism is a perfect system. Today, we see extreme inequality, skyrocketing prices of lifesaving medications and widespread exploitation of workers. These are some of the defining problems of our era, and I commend Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez for seeking bold action to combat them. 

But the solution to these problems is to fix the system we have, not abolish it and start all over again. We cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can institute a wealth tax, impose more stringent regulations on pharmaceutical pricing and pass comprehensive worker protection laws, all without abolishing capitalism. And, looking at his platform, I suspect Sanders would agree.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “Okay, so Sanders isn’t actually a socialist, but what’s the big deal if he wants to call himself one?” The short answer is that words have meaning, and they have consequences. When conservatives hear the Democratic presidential frontrunner talking about bringing socialism to America, they get scared (and perhaps rightfully so). It confirms their deepest fear: Liberals want to abolish the free-market system. The “socialist” label makes it impossible to seek bipartisan compromise on the most critical issues. For it would be political suicide for a Republican lawmaker to compromise with a “socialist.”

Sanders calls himself a socialist because it helps him stand out. It makes his liberalism undeniable. And it appeals greatly to some Americans, but it scares others to death. Employing language like this is fundamentally divisive. Its purpose is to garner support from some while alienating others.

As we attempt to say goodbye to the most divisive presidency of the modern era, Americans need to focus on what unites us. We all want to make the economy work for everyone, we all want to end the hyper-partisanship politics of Washington and we all want to make America a safer, healthier nation. 

By using alienating labels, we magnify the differences between the parties. We turn simple policy disagreements into fights to the ideological death. There is no room for labels like socialism when we have real problems to address. So, Senator Sanders, please for the love of God, stop calling yourself a socialist.