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Let's not put anything past him, but does Tom Friedman really not know the difference between 'social democracy' and 'totatalitarian communism'? (Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC/Getty)

When Tom Friedman Red-Baited Bernie Sanders

Someone should give the New York Times columnist a (one way?) ticket to Scandinavia

Peter Dreier

"What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist—ideas that died in 1989 and 1945 respectively?," New York Times pundit Tom Friedman asks in his latest column.

Friedman apparently doesn't understand that the idea that "died in 1989" was Communism. Senator Bernie Sanders, the "socialist" he's referring to, isn't a Communist. Is it really possible that Friedman doesn't understand the difference between authoritarian Communism and democratic socialism, which is how Sanders refers to himself? Or is he simply using that old tactic called "red-baiting" to try to make Sanders look like an extremist so that Hillary Clinton comes off as a moderate liberal?

Either way, Friedman should be ashamed of himself.

During the Cold War, many Americans confused democratic socialism with communism. In fact, democratic socialists -- like labor leader Walter Reuther and civil rights leader Martin Luther King—strongly opposed the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China and their satellites. That's because democratic socialism is about democracy—giving ordinary people a greater voice in both politics and the workplace.

"Many ideas that we take for granted today—Social Security, the minimum wage, women's suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws, the progressive income tax, workers' right to form unions, public works programs to create jobs for the unemployed, and Medicare—were first espoused by American socialists."

Although Sanders says that America needs a "grassroots political revolution," he is actually a reformer, not a revolutionary. He is hardly what Friedman described him as "far left." His version of democratic socialism is akin to what most people around the world call "social democracy," which seeks to make capitalism more humane. These are ideas that are widely popular in Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. They are also ideas that, according to public opinion polls, most Americans agree with, if you remove the political labels and simply describe how they actually work for everyday people.

In holding these views, Sanders follows in the footsteps of many prominent, influential Americans whose views and activism changed the country for the better. Sanders is part of a proud tradition that includes such important figures as Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Florence Kelley, Francis Bellamy (the socialist Baptist minister who wrote "The Pledge of Allegiance"), Katherine Lee Bates (the socialist poet who wrote "America the Beautiful), Emma Lazarus (another socialist poet who wrote "Colossus," inscribed on the Statue of Liberty), John Dewey, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Reuther, and King.

Many ideas that we take for granted today—Social Security, the minimum wage, women's suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws, the progressive income tax, workers' right to form unions, public works programs to create jobs for the unemployed, and Medicare—were first espoused by American socialists.

So it should come as no surprise that Sanders says that the U.S. could learn from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—countries with greater equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, mandated paid family leave and paid vacations, and a much wider safety net.

Sounds anti-business? Forbes magazine ranked Denmark as the #1 country for business. The United States ranked #18.

Perhaps the New York Times should buy Friedman a plane ticket to Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Oslo so he can ask the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians if they think they're living in societies based on an idea that died in 1989.

European social democracies put greater emphasis on government enterprise, but even most Americans favor government-run police departments, fire departments, national parks, municipally-owned utilities, local subway systems and public state universities.

Socialists and social democrats believe in private enterprise but think it should be subject to rules that guarantee businesses act responsibly. Banks shouldn't engage in reckless predatory lending. Energy corporations shouldn't endanger and planet and public health by emitting too much pollution. Companies should be required to guarantee that consumer products (like cars and toys) are safe and that companies pay decent wages and provide safe workplaces.

"On most matters—both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions—Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans."

Sanders' democratic socialism means reducing the political influence of the super rich and big corporations, increasing taxes of the wealthy to help pay for expanded public services like child care, public transit, and higher education, reducing barriers to voting, and strengthening regulations of business to require them to be more socially responsible in terms of their employees, consumers and the environment. That means a higher minimum wage, paid sick days and paid vacations, and safer workplaces.

These ideas are common sense, not Communist. Most Americans embrace them. For example, 74% of Americans think corporations have too much influence; 73% favor tougher regulation of Wall Street; 60% believe that "our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy;" 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics; 58% support breaking up big banks; 79% think the wealthy don't pay their fair share of taxes; 85% favor paid family leave; 80% of Democrats and half the public support single-payer Medicare for all; 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, while 63% favor a $15 minimum wage; well over 70% support workers' rights to unionize; and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.

Few Americans consider themselves socialists, but Sanders' campaign—and the shifting realities of American society—have helped take the sting out of the word. Growing concerns about the political influence of the super-rich, the nation's widening economic divide, the predatory practices of Wall Street banks, and stagnating wages have made more and more Americans willing to consider the idea seriously. A Pew survey found that nearly half of young voters under the age of 29, regardless of their political party affiliation, viewed socialism positively.

Since Sanders began running for president and openly identified himself as a democratic socialist, the idea has gotten more traction. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted November, discovered that 56 percent of Democratic primary voters nationally said they felt positive about socialism as a governing philosophy, compared to 29 percent who had a negative view. A new poll found that 43 percent of likely voters in the February 1 Democratic Iowa caucuses would use the word "socialist" to describe themselves.

On most matters—both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions—Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans. There's a great deal of pent-up demand for a candidate who articulates Americans' frustrations with the status quo. Like Friedman, Sanders is asking the question "What if?"

But Sanders' is asking "What if we had a society and a economy that worked for the 99 percent, not the 1 percent?"

That's an idea that is alive and well in 2016.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (2012) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style" and co-author of the forthcoming "Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America" (2022).

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