As the prospect of Sanders winning becomes ever more real, some commentators are downplaying his socialist credentials, painting the veteran Senator as no more than a moderate social democrat.
“Memo to left-wing Americans who adore Sanders’s radical ‘socialism’…” says Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, “in most other Western/European countries, Sanders would be considered a pretty mainstream, centre-left social democrat.”
His view is shared by the economist Paul Krugman. Dastardly Republicans might have the audacity to use Sanders’ own preferred label to describe him, but since he doesn’t want to “nationalise our major industries” or “replace markets with central planning”, Sanders “isn’t actually a socialist.” Ignore scare stories about Venezuelan economics then, Krugman advises. Sanders just wants the US to look more like Denmark.
Krugman is right to say that Sanders shuns nationalisation. To simply label him a socialist, without any caveats, is misleading. But it’s even more grossly misleading to suggest his “democratic socialist” ambitions stop at a Scandinavian-style welfare state. More redistribution is central to his agenda, sure, but he also proposes massive new market interventions, including the Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee, expansive price and wage controls, overhauling labour and corporate governance laws, and enforced mutualisation of companies.
Any given European country might engage in one or some of these interventionist policies. Combined though, whatever label you give it, Sanders’ platform goes far beyond any modern social democracy in terms of government size and scope. Indeed, his policies can only be considered moderate if some three-way lovechild of the economics of 1970s Sweden, Argentina, and Yugoslavia’s market socialism is the baseline.
Rather than countries, perhaps we might use another politician as a barometer here. Hasan suggests Sanders is less “left” than Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, which is quite a low bar to crawl under. Corbyn and McDonnell are certainly widely regarded as contemporary socialists and not social democrats.
So, is Hasan right? Our best tool is to compare Labour’s 2019 manifesto against the Sanders’ economic platform. Doing so makes clear that Bernie is more radical than Corbyn on economics, both in absolute terms and relative to their countries’ respective politics.
Take the size of government. The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl calculates that Sanders’ promises would add $97.5 trillion to spending over a decade, taking total annual US government spending to around 70% of GDP and more than doubling the size of the federal government. Even if climate investments prove a one-off, spending would settle at a massive 64% of GDP. That’s far higher than Labour’s planned 44% and even France’s current 57% (itself the highest in the OECD).
A look at certain individual spending areas also underlines just how radical the Sanders agenda is. Like Labour, he wants government-funded free public higher education. Unlike Labour, he’d also forgive all existing student debts. On climate change and infrastructure, Labour planned for £400 billion investment over 10 years (about 20% of current annual UK GDP). Sanders wants to invest $16.3 trillion over 15 years (about 75% of current annual US GDP.) On healthcare, both want government spending to expand to cover all medical treatment, prescription charges, long-term care for the elderly, and dentistry. But only Sanders would explicitly ban private health insurance (Labour did consider that proposal but held off in the end).
True, Corbyn and McDonnell favoured nationalising buses, railways, the energy sector, water, and parts of the broadband network. Corbyn even wanted free government-funded broadband for all. But even here the results of Sanders’ pledges would bring similar results. He would set up “publicly owned” and “democratically controlled” broadband networks. And his Green New Deal would bring most public transport under government control and deliver effective public ownership of energy production. And Sanders historically has supported exactly the types of nationalisations Corbyn favours.
When it comes to financing their promises, Sanders is arguably more radical again. Labour planned to only borrow to invest, raising the deficit by about 2% of GDP per year. But Bernie’s tax plans get nowhere near fully funding his agenda. Absent further broad-based tax rises, Riedl calculates annual borrowing would soar to around 30% of US GDP if his spending plans were implemented.