Op-ed

Democratic Socialism, Communism and the Misunderstanding of Bernie Sanders

James Carville said, “At least I’m not a communist!”

Michael Bloomberg stated, “We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”

Donald Trump commented, “I think he’s a communist. I mean, you know, look, I think of communism when I think of Bernie.”

These quotes are all in reference to Bernie Sanders, the longtime Independent senator from Vermont and current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders, back during the 2016 presidential campaign, described himself as a “democratic socialist,” and his incorporation of that scary “s-word” has since driven many intelligent, savvy political minds – and some not so intelligent or savvy – to express confusion, contempt, panic and quite a lot of emotion in between.

But why? What is so terrifying, for so many Americans, about the word “socialism,” and is it fair to say that Sanders, should he become president, will seize the collective wealth of our society and redistribute it? Simply put: that’s a firm, unyielding “no.”

Before I explain, a disclosure: when discussing my personal political beliefs, I label myself a socialist. I believe that capitalism, as a societal framework, incentivizes the prioritization of profit over the comfortable existence of the citizens of our society. I believe the system of capitalism to be immoral, that it will not regulate itself and so deserves to be abolished.

Many readers of this article are flinching right now, and it’s to be expected – in American society and politics, the concept of socialism is dramatically different from the capitalism we’re used to. I won’t tell those of you who are uncomfortable that you’re wrong to feel that way, either; this article isn’t a defense of socialism, though one of those may be in my future. There are, however, two things I would say that should offer some solace:

First, it could be worse, if “worse” is the word you’d like to use – communism goes much farther in the pursuit of full equality. Via the online dictionary Lexico:

“Communism (noun) – a political theory derived from Karl Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs.”

Marx himself described the concept of socialism as a necessary stepping stone toward the institution of communism. Where communism abolishes private property in all senses and the system of economic classes, socialism retains the existence of private property, only seeing the means of production owned publicly and communally. Also according to Lexico:

“Socialism (noun) – a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned and regulated by the community as a whole.”

Second, Sanders’ does not advocate for public ownership of the means of production, let alone the abolition of private property. The democratic socialism he believes in and has campaigned on only seeks to reign in American capitalism – not abolish it – in an effort to make the lives of all people more equitable.

But how, exactly, does Sanders plan to achieve that? You might have heard political talking heads of all stripes decry his intent to tax everyone – including the middle and working classes of America – at obscene rates and consequently drive more Americans into poverty. Since this article is for a publication, I’ll address that accusation more politely than I would otherwise: it isn’t based in anything close to fact.

According to PolitiFact, from 1953 to 1961, the top marginal tax rate was 91%, and affected individuals making at least $200,000 a year or couples making at least $400,000. That is the equivalent, today, of about $1.7 million per year for an individual or $3.4 million for couples. Those of you who know your history know that Dwight D. Eisenhower – a Republican – was president during those years, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d accuse a Republican of being a communist.

The proposed top marginal tax rate of Sanders’ plan, by contrast, is 52% – and that only on incomes above $10 million a year. With a lower top tax rate on a relatively higher income compared to Eisenhower, the Sanders tax plan seems downright merciful. Not to mention, the existence of taxes precludes any intent to seize the wealth of the rich and redistribute it.

One of Sanders’ flagship proposals is “Medicare for All,” a plan to guarantee all Americans access to healthcare without the necessity of paying for it out of their own pockets. It’s been attacked as being – surprise! – communism, which is, of course, laughable. The plan makes no mention of eliminating all private property to pay for Medicare for All – because of course it doesn’t. The Sanders’ campaign’s website details funding for his universal healthcare plan, but put simply, it will be paid for through several different taxes.

It’s not lost on me that those accusing Sanders of being a communist aren’t making those accusations because they know what truly communism is, and genuinely believe that Sanders subscribes to it; rather, they believe that anything that raises taxes and expands the scope of the federal government is communism. We must disabuse as many people as possible of that notion. Career politicians and political pundits, like the men I quoted in the opening, however, are too smart not to know what communism is and disingenuously accuse people like Sanders of being a communist as a scare tactic. These people should simply be ignored.

I also recognize that most students reading this article already know much of its contents. If that’s you, congratulations on being politically informed; now, help others learn the facts as well. Spring Break is next week, and many of your parents and other family members don’t have this information. Take a copy of The Quad home with you, arm yourself with the facts, including doing more research outside of this article, and have meaningful conversations with family about what Sanders has actually proposed – and how it’s a far cry from communism.

Kyle Gombosi is a senior music: elective studies major with a minor in journalism. KG806059@wcupa.edu

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