Whatever the fate of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, his current popularity provides an opportunity to clarify the various political labels attached to him: liberal, progressive, socialist, democratic socialist, social democratic, leftist, radical.
Each term means something quite different, and each one can mean different things to different people at different times in different places. If it’s this complicated, should we fuss about labels? Should Sanders — and all of us — reject being pinned down by a word or phrase? Aren’t our positions on specific issues more important?
Perhaps, but whether we like it or not, in everyday life we use labels and defining those labels can deepen our understanding of political philosophies.
Before evaluating what Sanders really “is,” I can say with some certainty what I am: a leftist with a radical analysis of contemporary America. What does that mean?
While there’s no required list of political positions one checks off to become a leftist, two ideas traditionally have central to left politics: a rejection of capitalism and imperialism. Leftists are anti-capitalist and anti-empire.
“Anti-capitalist” sounds old-fashioned, given that virtually the entire globe practices some type of capitalism and there seems to be no alternative. But that economic system is inconsistent with my moral principles (rooted in the inherent dignity of all people) and incompatible with the bio-physical limits of the ecosphere (on which we are dependent for life). So, I’m anti-capitalist.
In the short term, leftists often support reforms of capitalism to produce a slightly more just distribution of wealth (such as raising the minimum wage or increasing taxes on the wealthy) and to slow down the assault on the living systems of the planet (such as stricter environmental regulations). But we leftists also offer a critique of the immoral and unsustainable nature of capitalism; support for reformist policies can come with a radical analysis that argues for more fundamental change down the road.
“Anti-empire” sounds old-fashioned, too, because the politicians in the globe’s dominant imperial power — the United States, though a little less successful in empire-building lately — reject the term. But especially since the end of WWII, the United States has used its military, economic, and diplomatic power to try to control the effective political sovereignty of other societies, especially in resource-rich regions such as the Middle East. Imperialism is inconsistent with my moral principles and widely held beliefs in self-determination and democracy. So, I’m anti-empire.
Leftists not only oppose the most obviously criminal U.S. policies abroad (such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq) but also offer more radical critiques of so-called “humanitarian” interventions and deceptively named “free trade” agreements that are designed to deepen the depth and scope of U.S. power.
Beyond economic and foreign policy, leftists tend to offer a radical critique of white supremacy and patriarchy, rather than simply calling for diversity and multiculturalism. Once again, the focus is on systems, rooted in a belief that meaningful social change requires a holistic critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of those systems. Leftists argue that a radical analysis of fundamentally unjust and unsustainable systems is necessary if there is to be a decent human future.
A review of Sanders’ campaign website makes it clear he is not a leftist. Nowhere does he articulate, or even hint at, a left critique of capitalism and empire. On these matters, he sounds like a pretty traditional U.S. liberal from the left-leaning wing of the Democratic Party, arguing for a more benevolent capitalism and empire.
This may sound confusing, since Sanders refers to himself as a socialist, and many socialists are leftists. But Sanders is a “democratic socialist,” a term more common in Western Europe than the United States, which typically means modifying the older goals of transcending capitalism and empire, accepting these systems as inevitable, and seeking a more active government role in distributing wealth more equitably and policing the world more fairly. In other words, Sanders seems to share the democratic socialist goal that all the world could someday be Sweden.
My answer to what Sanders “is”: a democratic socialist (or social democrat, which some people prefer) with generally liberal politics (which some people prefer to call progressive), who leans further to the left than the mainstream Democratic Party, but not a leftist or a radical.
Unlike some leftists, I’m not rejecting Sanders’ candidacy because he is insufficiently radical — we need any and all critical voices available. Electoral politics is about achieving what can be achieved in that moment, and the Sanders surge gives leftists an opening to applaud his efforts at countering the centrist/right instincts of so many Democrats while also talking forthrightly about the value of a more radical analysis, which is desperately needed.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015). Jensen’s other books include Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.
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