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What to Make of Bernie Sanders' Democratic Socialism?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Jon Wisman

Nobel economics recipient Joseph Stiglitz claimed that "labeling anything 'socialism' is the kiss of death," a judgment seemingly confirmed by the ease with which Donald Trump calls Bernie Sanders a "maniac" and a "communist." Yet self-identified democratic socialist Sanders draws growing support. Are the winds changing direction? And just what is a democratic socialist?
Since World War Two, democratic socialists have often been in power in Western Europe, and what they represent is a far cry from the totalitarian despotic state socialism of the fallen Soviet Union, where government owned the means of production and notoriously suppressed the fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and press. Although what European democratic socialists have advocated has varied, they have not generally rejected capitalist institutions so much as advocated taming them to be just as well as efficient. And they have embraced what Americans consider fundamental human rights.
So how have European nations in which democratic socialist parties have been significant players fared in terms of freedom and general life-enhancement?
The best place to start is with the major issue that frightens most Americans -- the presumed threat to freedom posed by any form of socialism. Can Europeans freely speak out, freely express ideas in the press? Can they freely assemble? According to Freedom House, the freest countries of the world are Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. And what would surely surprise and shock most Americans, among nations, the U.S. clocks in way down -- at 30th from the top.
The U.S. does a bit better on a broader index, the Human Freedom Index, a composite of a Personal Freedom Index and an Economic Freedom Index, co-produced by the Cato Institute, the Washington, D.C. right-wing think tank. This index ranks the U.S. 20th, well below 11 Western European countries.
Let's check a few other indexes. The Economist Intelligence Unit produces a quality of life index which includes nine variables: material wellbeing, health, political stability and security, family life, community life, climate and geography, job security, political freedom, and gender equality. On this index, in mid-2015, the U.S. comes in 10th, behind eight European countries.
Another index produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit is their Where-to-be-Born Index that measures which countries can be predicted to provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life. According to this index, in 2013, the U.S. ranked 16th, behind 10 Western European Countries.
On a number of important discrete measures of life quality, the U.S. fares poorly. Among countries, the U.S. ranks 43rd in life expectancy and 34th in infant mortality, behind 17 Western European nations on both scores. Among 35 developed nations, the U.S. ranks 28th for having the fewest children in poverty (22 percent), well below European nations. Homicide rates in the U.S. far exceed those of Western European nations. The percent of the U.S. population in prison is over 3 times higher than that of the highest Western European country. European countries lead the world in legally-mandated paid vacation time. At the top, 31 days in France, 30 in Belgium. No federal laws require paid leave in the U.S. where average paid leave is 16 days. The U.S. is the only wealthy country that does not legally require parental leave. Finally, income and wealth inequality is considerably greater in the U.S. than in any Western Europe country.
But isn't the U.S. the foremost land of equal opportunity where people have the greatest chance of getting ahead? For most of U.S. history this was true. Yet in spite of the fact that most Americans continue to believe this remains true, it is not. Over recent decades, multiple studies have found that there is less vertical mobility in the U.S. than in other rich societies such as Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland and France. In the U.S., there's a greater chance that the rich and their children will stay rich and that the poor and their children will stay poor. What happened? Education has always constituted the most important means for advancement. From 1830 until the mid-1970s, the U.S. possessed the world's best and most democratic system of education, providing its young with the world's highest quality education. But this advantage has withered away over recent decades. The high school graduation rate in the U.S. is now 79 percent, compared to 87 percent in the European Union. The U.S. ranks 12th in the share of 25-to 34-year-olds with college degrees. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010.
Are more Americans becoming aware that in numerous domains more "socialist" Europe now outperforms the U.S., and could this be why they are more willing to view democratic socialism positively? A June 2015 Gallop Poll finds that 59 percent of Democrats, 49 percent of Independents, and 26 percent of Republicans would be willing to vote for a socialist candidate for president nominated by their party. The young appear to be in the vanguard in their openness to socialism. Among those 18 to 29 years of age, 69 percent would be willing to vote for a socialist.
Since the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980, leading politicians of his party have argued, and continue to argue, that government is the problem. This anti-government stance has led to tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, weakened support for education and other programs that benefit the broader population, and soaring inequality, all of which created the conditions for the financial crisis of 2008.
The Occupy Wall Street movement and now Bernie Sander's embrace of democratic socialism claim that anti-government politics have gutted the American dream, created inequality in income, wealth, and privilege not seen since the 1920s, and led to economic dysfunction. Is the support for a candidate who embraces democratic socialism evidence that the political pendulum's rightward swing over the past four decades is reversing direction?

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