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Howard Lehman: A social democrat can win in November

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., cheer during a primary night election rally in Essex Junction, Vt., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Super Tuesday’s results highlight once again that a democratic socialist can’t win in November.

Trump Republicans clearly won’t support Bernie Sanders. And Joe Biden’s resurgence suggests moderate Democrats will break from Sanders. By self-identifying as a democratic socialist, Sanders has painted himself in a tight corner.

Trump will attack Sanders and all down-ballot Democrats as socialists by creating the same false narratives as he did against Hillary Clinton and her emails and Hunter Biden and supposed corruption.

Yet, a review of Sanders’ policies points to the odd discrepancy in that he most definitely is not a democratic socialist. His use of this term is problematic, politically divisive and, I believe, undermining the ability of the Democratic Party to win in November.

Paul Krugman recently asked this question: “So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie.”

Democratic socialism is socialism-lite. It broadly is an economic system in which some means of production (capital, labor and land) may be owned by the government. According to the Democratic Socialists of America party, which strongly supports Sanders, energy and steel industries may require state ownership, but consumer goods industries might be best run as worker cooperatives.

Public opinion polls suggest that most Americans do not support the policies of democratic socialism. The Pew Research Center states that a much larger share of Americans have a positive impression of capitalism than socialism. In fact, 53% of those polled declared they would not vote for a candidate espousing socialism. A recent Gallup poll finds that 60% of Americans view capitalism positively. Moreover, capitalism is closely embedded in our values, norms, and everyday practices. Democratic socialism does not reflect U.S. economic history.

Although he consistently labels himself as a democratic socialist, his policies more accurately reflect social democracy. While the two phrases are similar, they offer vastly different policies.

In a social democracy, wealth still is created privately. However, this system also focuses on the role of government to mitigate economic inequality, curb poverty, support universal health care, child care and education. Examples of societies pursuing social democratic policies are found in the Nordic countries.

While the group-oriented values of those countries are different from our own, certain policies could be implemented in the U.S. Such policies include a national minimum wage, broader subsides for higher education, especially for community colleges, and a national health care system. Social interventions in these specific areas do not represent socialism, but an economic system that presents the most equitable form of capitalism. A review of Sanders’ campaign webpage confirms his position as a social democrat.

If Sanders would abandon democratic socialism and embrace social democracy, more Americans would support his campaign. Americans desire a reenergized capitalism that provides a more equitable playing field supported by rules for expanded opportunity of all people.

A recent report notes that while the stock market has risen since 2016, only 50% of Americans own stocks.

Trump’s corporate tax cut is only making inequality worse. According to the Tax Policy Center, after-tax incomes of the top 1% (those making over $730,000) would rise by about $130,000, or 8.5%. The top 0.1%, (those making $5 million a year) would see their after-tax income jump 10%. The bottom 95% of households, by contrast, would get a bump of just 0.5% to 1.2%.

To counter inequality, our political leaders must address the unfair tax system which rewards the wealthy and corporations, close corporate tax loopholes, and end taxpayer subsidies for the oil industry.

Sander’s emphasis on democratic socialism is wrong-headed and politically disastrous. Trump will use democratic socialism as red meat for his supporters and to sway independents and moderates away from the Democratic nominee.

However, a social democratic candidate can bring together most Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans seeking a more equitable capitalist system. Sanders needs to discard his label of democratic socialism and accept social democracy as a winning platform against President Trump.

Howard Lehman

Howard Lehman is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah.

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