In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt said that America should protect “four freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. As he runs for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders is presenting his “democratic socialism” as a way to finish FDR’s work. Judging from Sanders’ speech defining the concept, he has added a fifth freedom: freedom from facts.
Last Wednesday’s address was a long denial of reality. Through evasion and distortion, Sanders pretends that socialism has never proved oppressive to freedom, and that capitalism has never led to widespread progress.
If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, he had better hope that the economy falls into recession — because his speech suggests that his only idea of how to campaign against an incumbent during an economic boom is to claim it isn’t happening. It’s “a so-called booming economy,” Sanders says, one reflected in “macroeconomic numbers” but not people’s lives.
The people themselves don’t seem to agree. According to Gallup, 51 percent of Americans rate the economy “excellent” or “good,” the highest number since the start of 2001. Over the last few years, Gallup has also found that most Americans think the economy is getting better. Those numbers are as good as they have been since 2000. We’re hitting records for the percentage of Americans who think it’s “a good time to find a quality job.” If Sanders is right, that’s a lot of false consciousness out there.
To sell socialism, Sanders doesn’t just wish away today’s good economy. He claims that we have had a very long stretch of stagnation: “The average wage of the American worker in real dollars is no higher than it was 46 years ago and millions of people are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.” Sanders can reach his conclusion about wages only by ignoring non-wage benefits such as health care and using a different adjustment for inflation than the one that the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office prefer. Use a measure of inflation that corrects for the technical deficiencies of older measures and the average wage has grown by more than 20 percent over the last 46 years. Given benefits have grown as a percentage of compensation, average compensation has almost certainly grown even more.
The senator stacks the deck when it comes to our political choices, too. As he tells it, the world has two options: right-wing authoritarianism or democratic socialism. He posits a world in which the phenomenon of left-wing authoritarianism has never existed. As Yascha Mounk writes in the Atlantic:
Sanders name-checked Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini but remained silent about Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. And while he rightly decried the autocratic tendencies of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, he neglected to mention leftist autocrats such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Cuba’s Raúl Castro or North Korea’s Kim Jung-un.
The idea that socialism could ever go badly wrong emerges in Sanders’ speech as the invention of “red-baiters,” who opposed FDR and Harry Truman by calling them socialists. This is a less useful point for Sanders than he thinks since, unlike him, FDR and Truman denied being socialists — and Truman’s foreign policy was certainly alive to the dangers of socialism.
On the spectrum from pure socialism to pure capitalism, those past Democratic presidents were closer to the left end than Republicans were. But they knew there was such a thing as going too far to the left, and they knew most Americans agreed. Sanders shows no evidence of agreeing. His view of the electorate may prove to be as disconnected from reality as his view of capitalism and socialism.