Bernie Sanders Is Riding the Third Rail

Bernie Sanders Is Riding the Third Rail August 31, 2015

By Ancheta Wis at en.wikipedia [CC BY 2.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
By Ancheta Wis at en.wikipedia [CC BY 2.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders wins any states in the presidential race, he has already made a more meaningful contribution to our contemporary political conversation than all the other candidates put together.

After all, we all know what Hillary thinks about most social and political issues given the longevity and high profile of her career.

The Republican field is so large that most people don’t even know who half the candidates are and any potentially interesting things they might have to say about our economy and our political life have simply been lost in the wake of the lunacy that is the Trump candidacy.

While its true that Trump makes headlines and a lot of people are talking about him, they aren’t talking about any great ideas he has about how to address America’s economic and political future. Or any new ideas about how to address the social problems of racism and poverty that shape people’s lives today. Trump is no politician, he is a cult of personality, a megalomaniac whose obsession with power and attention is unparalleled in our contemporary political scene.

And then there’s Bernie.

Bernie Sanders is an unassuming, old, white guy who is a career politician. Born in Brooklyn, he spent nearly the last 50 years in Vermont where he served several terms as mayor of Burlington and then moved on to the Vermont state house, the US House of Representatives, and now the US Senate.

This, in and of itself, is not remarkable. It’s a typical sort of bio for an American politician.

Except for one thing.

Sanders identifies himself as a democratic socialist. By running as a socialist candidate, Bernie has grabbed the third rail of American politics and is riding it for all he’s worth.

By standing up for socialism and ideas that have been marked as unpopular and unwinnable, Sanders is reminding us what is at the heart of democracy – engaging thoughtfully in debate about different political ideas. Ideas that are meant to help us solve the problems that we face.

This country’s relationship with socialism is confusing, at best. Despite the fact that our economy is best defined as a “mixed economy” meaning a mixture of capitalist and socialist policies, we have a history of lionizing capitalism and free markets and vilifying any alternatives as scary, totalitarian, and downright demonic.

The neoliberal era of our democracy, ushered in by the Reagan-Thatcher era, sought to sully the name of socialism and socialist policies in the US and Britain by promoting the privatization of public goods, focusing on increased international trade, and deregulating everything in sight. The ideology of neoliberalism anointed unregulated and privatized capitalism as the only way forward and Thatcher popularized it with her famous slogan, “There is no alternative!”

The idea that capitalism had won was pressed even further after the fall of the Berlin Wall and thus, supposedly any viable socialist experiment – capitalism was crowned the winner, the king, the patriarch of economic ideologies.

It’s true that the neoliberal economy of the last 40+ years has generated an enormous amount of wealth, the problem is that wealth has been concentrated in the upper echelons of society. Inequality in the US is approaching the levels of the days of the robber barons and the levels of poverty are unconscionable.

The poverty guidelines we use in the US were established in the 1960s when food costs made up one-third of the average family’s expenses. Today food accounts for closer to one-sixth of a family’s budget. This is why economists often talk about people who are living at 200% of the poverty level – because our accounting measure is wholly inadequate for measuring poverty.

The problems of inequality and poverty in our country will not be solved by neoliberalism and free market capitalism. We have decades of evidence that rising tides do not lift all boats. We need new ideas and approaches to the economy, ideas that focus on the common good and the well-being of all people.

As a Christian, I’ve always thought that socialism was the closest economic model to the teachings of Jesus and to the social structure promoted in the Bible.

Arguably, Peter and the earliest Christian communities were communist.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4: 32, 34-35)

It hard to get more communist than that! However, I don’t think that communism as a social theory has adequately accounted for human nature, human difference, and the sin of greed.

But socialism is not communism.

Socialism arose in response to the intrinsic flaws of capitalism –  most notably capitalism’s emphasis on profit rather than social good and capitalism’s treatment of people as means to an end (again, the end being profit). Socialism focuses on shared ownership rather than private ownership, shared wealth and profits (with workers and shareholders), and ensuring a basic minimum level or floor of well-being that no one in society is allowed to fall below.

Sunday’s lectionary text from James said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In the biblical world, “orphans and widows” was code for the poor and marginalized. The mandate of the Bible is pretty clear about our obligation to care for our brothers and sisters.

Sanders greatest gift so far has been his dogged commitment to economic alternatives to capitalism and his insistence that politics and economics ought to be responsible to the whole electorate, not just those with money and power.

Bernie Sanders represents exactly what democracy ought to be about – the healthy and unfettered exchange of ideas about the welfare of our country. He is also showing us that democratic socialism is more viable than most politicians or capitalists have been willing to admit.



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