The People Who Think Bernie Is Moderate

To socialist candidates, even the left-most Democrat isn’t left enough.

Bernie Sanders
Scott Morgan / Reuters

Senator Elizabeth Warren wants new taxes on wealth. Senator Bernie Sanders wants Medicare for All. Senator Cory Booker wants guaranteed jobs. Jeff Mackler wants the elimination of the military budget, the nationalization of the energy and banking industries, open borders, the creation of a state-run health-care system, and the end of capitalism in the United States.

A member of the Trotskyist party Socialist Action, Mackler is one of a handful of true, full-fat, no-joke socialist candidates running or considering running for president in 2020. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks at the Democratic primary and sees the proposed Cubafication of the country; Mackler looks at it and sees neoliberal accommodationism. “Bernie gets a little attention when he says things like, ‘Three people in the United States control half the wealth in the country,’” he told me with a chuckle. “He has no proposal to change that in any way!”

Between McConnell and Mackler, the latter probably has the better argument. Historians and political scientists—and socialists themselves—make the point that although the left has moved to the left, there is still a lot of left left to the left. Progressives have become more progressive, and Nordic-model policies more popular; membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has boomed. But socialism—real socialism, meaning worker collectives and the nationalization of critical industries and the end of the free-enterprise model? In the presidential race, nobody is even talking about it.

Save for Mackler and people like him. The Oakland-based candidate is gearing up for his 2020 campaign for the White House, with planned rallies and meetings from Kentucky to Maine. “We don’t expect to win. We’re going to be write-in candidates in maybe a dozen states,” he said. “But we will win if we build our party.”

In Florida, Elijah Manley, a college student, activist, and former staffer for Senator Mike Gravel’s 2020 bid, is also running a socialist protest campaign. A member of the Green Party and the Socialist Party of the United States of America (SPUSA), Manley told me that his goal is to talk about justice wherever and however he can. “A lot of that comes from my background—there are issues that as a black person from the South and a queer person, I don’t think are reflected in politics,” he said, also citing the need for more focus on generational justice and the rights and representation of young people.

His campaigning has involved delineating his policy preferences, building a social-media presence, and going on Fox News to represent the socialist perspective. “One of the commentators said that people buying avocado toast at Starbucks is why they are poor,” he said, adding that he got a more receptive response on the channel than he imagined.

These candidates differ from the Democrats on policy, putting forward far, far more sweeping proposals than even Sanders has. Mackler scoffed at Warren’s plan to tax fortunes over $50 million at 2 percent a year, recalling a time he suggested a 100 percent levy on income over $150,000 a year. Manley said he supports proposals like Medicare for All and free college tuition, but nevertheless wants to keep workers controlling the means of production as a north star. “I’m not the type of person to attack other people on the left,” he said. “But those policies aren’t socialism.”

Monica Moorehead, the once and perhaps future presidential candidate for the Workers World Party, supports reparations, guaranteeing all Americans a decent standard of living, and ending the carceral state. “We see this as class struggle,” she told me. “Are you on the side of the bosses and the bankers who exploit workers around the world? Or are you on the side of working people, including people of color?” Within that class struggle, the socialists’ goal is not to hem in capitalism’s excesses, as Democrats largely want to do, but to end the hegemony of capitalism.

Of course, for many Republicans and conservative commentators, everyone from Manley to Joe Biden represents a socialist threat. “We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!,” the president tweeted in July. McConnell has used the term to bash Democrats’ voting-rights legislation, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and expanding statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, repeatedly expressing shock that the Democrats want to destroy free enterprise.

This is an old rhetorical move, not a serious piece of contemporary political analysis. As the Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman, the author of a new book on free enterprise, has pointed out, Republicans have termed whatever the Democrats have wanted as “socialism” and whomever they choose to run as a “socialist” regularly since the New Deal. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis: all socialists.

“The key is the binary framing, freedom or free enterprise on one side, and any modification of that is deemed socialism on the other,” Glickman told me. “If you mess with with free enterprise, you will ultimately get through the slippery-slope process to what they posit as socialism. And socialism is more often a code word for New Deal liberalism and its descendants than actual socialism.”

Indeed, the country’s binary politics elide much of the nuance that exists on the left in other countries. Democrats have moved toward what is elsewhere often called “social democracy,” meaning a mixed economy with a robust welfare state. “It’s a term that’s common in Europe that’s never taken off here,” explains Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown and a longtime activist on the left. “That’s what Bernie Sanders is. Certainly, he’d be right at home in the Labour Party in Britain.” Further to the left lies democratic socialism, which supports social ownership of the economy itself.

But these separations are not clean; the lines between social democrats and democratic socialists and progressives and New Deal Democrats are drawn and erased and redrawn over and over again. Making the whole thing more confusing is the fact that Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, not a proponent of social democracy. Making it even more confusing is the fact that the country’s most popular and influential socialist organization—the DSA’s membership has swelled to nearly 60,000, from just a few thousand a few years ago—endorses Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama and Sanders.

The decision is tactical, Kazin says, and serves to expand the DSA’s influence and the influence of socialist ideas. “Given we have a zero-sum political system and given the fact that the two parties are quite ideologically opposed now, I think a third party on the left would be suicide,” he told me. “It would just help Republicans, as Jill Stein did in 2016.”

Members of Socialist Action, the SPUSA, and other third parties see it differently, arguing that the Democratic Party is irredeemably compromised and that voters deserve true alternatives. “Nothing ever changes without independent mass struggle—independent of the two parties, which both represent, fundamentally, the interests of the rich,” Moorehead told me. “We can’t have a kinder, gentler capitalism.”

The socialists’ campaigns and socialist parties might not be popular. But that idea surely is, as evidenced by Sanders’s success, the populist drift of all the Democratic candidates, and the popularity of proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Come 2020, there won’t be a socialist in the White House. But there might be some socialism.