We have seen this movie before: a candidate viewed by many as beyond the pale convincingly wins a key primary – and seems poised to win more. Panic prevails. In the hours before the Iowa caucuses, a normally composed power broker was heard screaming into a public phone in a crowded Des Moines hotel lobby about “the possibility of Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic Party — down whole.”
But here we are.
While progressive Democrats this cycle have been dreading the instincts of centrist liberals like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, moderates cringe at the prospect of an avowed socialist leading their party. Some fear Sanders would split Democrats, and doom him to a defeat as sweeping as that George McGovern suffered in 1972 to Richard Nixon.
Others darkly warn that democratic socialists are in fact not real democrats at all – but rather, like Lenin one hundred years ago, power-hungry strongmen who see democracy as an expedient means, not an inalienable core of a free society.
As President Trump put it in his State of the Union address: “Socialism destroys nations,” while “freedom unifies the soul” – as if liberty and socialism are incompatible in principle.
At issue are serious questions, including what modern democracy means – and how we might in practice honor our characteristically American proposition, in our Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal”?
We Americans are especially prone to forget how the socialist movements of the nineteenth century, first in Europe and then in America, took up the banner of democracy, and helped force reluctant governing elites to broaden the franchise, and also to find ways to prevent market societies from generating runaway inequality.
In the long perspective of recent world history, it seems clear to me that the ongoing emancipation of modern societies has been, to a great extent, a result of socialists and democrats (and, eventually, liberals, and some avowed conservatives too) working hand in hand, not at cross purposes.
It is also clear that one of the most crippling prejudices of activists and writers, especially on the left, is to draw fierce and parochial contrasts between liberals and socialists, democrats and progressives.
Take the theme of equality. Socialists of all stripes aim to create a more egalitarian society through economic and social reforms. But the 18th-century Americans who declared the nation’s independence and the revolutionary thinkers who drafted the world’s first democratic constitution in Paris in 1792 and ’93 pursued a similarly egalitarian ideal before socialism, as a movement, even existed.
Or take the goal of self-government. The French philosophe and revolutionary politician Condorcet, a paragon of French Enlightenment values, drafted the world’s first democratic constitution in 1793 (eschewing the American Constitution’s elaborate mechanisms for thwarting majority rule). But it was the British Chartists, and their socialist heirs in Germany who, two generations later, pressed hard for the implementation of similarly democratic institutions in their homelands.
Of course, the goals so ardently pursued by radical democrats and socialists often ended in defeat, if not the kinds of catastrophic violence that doomed Condorcet’s democratic ideals in France.
It is true that Lenin, an avowed proponent of “democratic centralism,” traduced the Russian upwelling of enthusiasm for democratic self-governance in the form of local city councils, or soviets, and turned the Soviet Union into a one-party dictatorship.
But it is also true that Woodrow Wilson, while claiming he would make a world safe for democracy, created in its name a vast administrative state staffed by unelected civil servants and operating, in its security and intelligence services, under an undemocratic veil of secrecy.
Liberal democrats and democratic socialists need to face frankly the failures and limitations of modern liberal regimes run by remote elites. But they also need to appraise honestly socialist policies that have ranged from the admirable yet costly social safety nets created in Scandinavia to the command economies that have proved so ruinous in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
The idea that anyone, of any political orientation, at this juncture of human affairs, has a clear idea of how best to institute a free society of equals is simply laughable.
What can realistically be expected from human beings who aspire to be self-governing? What, if any, kinds of inequality are justified, ever? How much state power is compatible with liberty? Are there new ways of tempering the vices of market societies, in order to make them compatible with a more equitable commonwealth?
There is so much we don’t know.
It’s always worth questioning our assumptions about the ultimate goals we profess as democrats, liberals, and socialists – and I regard myself as upholding aspects of all three traditions. But it’s also worth keeping in mind a common enemy: the authoritarian strongmen and unaccountable elites that strive to maintain their control of political power, as a few superrich individuals and families keep getting richer and ever more insulated from the accidents of fate that define everyday life or the remaining 99 percent of the globe’s population.
What we can’t repeat is the mistake that liberals and democratic socialists made in Weimar Germany in 1933: to allow our various areas of disagreement to cloud what ought to be our common hope – “that government of people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
For that reason, I will support any nominee of the Democratic Party, be it Elizabeth Warren or Michael Bloomberg; Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg; Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
What’s at stake in 2020 in fact is nothing less than the future of democracy in America.
James Miller, co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar, teaches at The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).