A prime issue for Bernie Sanders is dealing with the American nervousness surrounding his declared position as a ‘Democratic Socialist’. Recent history has proved a continued scepticism of anything which may be misconstrued as (or genuinely be) socialist. The backlash faced by President Barack Obama for the passage of 2010’s ‘Affordable Care Act’ (or ‘ObamaCare’) which aimed to reform Health Insurance within the US captures this conflict. America's socially conservative population are deeply suspicious of any signs of a strong central government. In practice, this means that, as with 'ObamaCare', attempts to extend Federal power to relatively ambitious lengths rub uncomfortably up against a suspicious electorate.
To his credit, Sanders has changed his rhetorical strategy to define 'Democratic Socialism' as an idea which is 'American' in its essence
Descriptions of the ‘Land of Opportunity’ and the Constitutional promise of ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ seem to justify its place as a free-market economy (within which government intervention should be limited). However, for 20th February’s Democratic debate Bernie Sanders tried to move away from this view and draw instead from the words of Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His speech suggested that the USA already practiced ‘socialism' but only 'for the very rich’ (by form of corporate tax cuts). The self-reliance and struggle which the Constitution romanticises exists only in the ‘rugged individualism for the poor’.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: America has always practiced 'socialism for the very rich', and 'rugged individualism for the poor'
'Socialism' is a toxic word in American politics. Sanders' re-definition of it takes ambitious departure from its image of red-flagged waving and manifesto flogging threats to ‘Americanism’ of 1940s/50s. But this move is essential if Sanders is to make the idea of Democratic Socialism more palatable for the sceptics.
The question persists though. Is this enough? Sanders’ promise of Universal healthcare, though playing catch-up with the endlessly referenced examples of Sweden, Norway, or Finland, is perhaps radically a few steps too far beyond the already controversial ObamaCare.
But the idea of 'Socialism' is toxic in American politics, and an easy target for Trump
As nuanced as Sanders’ explanation of Democratic Socialism may be, it relies on genuine dialogue to make any ground. Unfortunately for America, the Twitter-diplomacy style favoured by President Donald Trump can just as easily throw the word ‘SOCIALIST’ out to stop this discussion from taking place. This is difficult as Sanders will need to get his point across to both the Republican and Democratic bases if he does indeed win the nomination.
Biden may serve as an antidote to Trump’s populism if Bernie does not make the nomination, but he has his own issues to deal with. His top priority should be aiming to shake off the ‘Sleepy Joe’ image that has been branded onto him by Trump. This is essential in order to compete for media attention if he instead becomes the nominee.