I would love to support Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I generally like his ideas more than Hillary Clinton’s. There’s an aura about Sanders as the candidate who is more upset with the current system and demands more reform than Hillary. He can’t win though, and, sadly, it’s partially because he’s tied himself to a dirty word we just need to replace.
The word is “socialist.” Its denotation, according to Merriam-Webster, is a person who believes in “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
I don’t think that’s what Sanders means when he calls himself a “Democratic-Socialist,” but that’s not really the problem. The problem is the connotation of “socialist” in the United States. A lot of people who don’t understand the meaning of this word hate it with a righteous passion, and they hate it because of our history. Europe’s experience of the Cold War was very different than ours. They can get away with using (insert modifier)-Socialist without unreasonable emotion. We, as Americans, can not.
Despite valiant efforts to resuscitate the word, even on the part of Sanders himself, we cannot clean it, and it is outdated. It’s an Industrial Age word in an Information Age world. Its old connotation is being applied to a political economy that has fundamentally changed in the last few decades.
Socialism, for many, conjures images of excessive government control and totalitarianism. That isn’t what the word should mean in the Information Age. The Cold War is long over, but we still believe our old rhetoric and have too much faith in our notion of laissez-faire economics to forget what we used to tell ourselves Socialism meant. When we had a philosophical war to win, we needed to hate the idea, but now that hatred has led to massive imbalances that need to be corrected. We need to alter our old ideas to match our new world, but we can’t use the language we used for so long against our enemy to get there.
So, we have people who:
- want to reduce out-of-control wealth disparity,
- demand transparency from major private institutions that collectively hold more power over the average person’s life than the public sector,
- expand reasonably affordable access to quality health care and education,
- advance science and our honest understanding of the Anthropocene epoch, and
- generally treat the rest of the world with a little more respect.
Bernie Sanders’ momentum-gaining movement has these five things in common and gets labeled Socialist because of it. This as-yet-unnamed movement is a “reactionary” political philosophy, in that none of these things are absolutes. It isn’t about replacing capitalism so much as tweaking the bits that have gotten out of control. It is about addressing macro issues like climate change and massive wealth disparity that the invisible hand isn’t capable of fixing by itself.
“Socialist” isn’t the right word for the movement, not only because of its troubled history, but also because it isn’t really accurate. “Democrat” won’t work because too many high-profile Democrats either do not believe these ideas or are too chicken-shit to espouse them in earnest. “Liberal” doesn’t work because it has its own baggage. Maybe “Modernist,” but that word has been usurped by middling artists, as has “Millennialist” by bratty children.
My modest proposal would be “Calibrationist.” It’s a stupid label, but it makes sense for what the movement is trying to do. Sanders doesn’t want to replace the machinery of modern American life, as the term “Socialist” implies for so many. He wants to wind up the spring: use our wealth to give more opportunities to people with the skill and drive to take them and make everyone else a little easier to carry for such people.
Were our system a sports team, it would be very good at rewarding the merits of people who can reach the field, but when left alone too long, it gets out of balance, and untalented Old Money nobility takes up most of the roster. The movement is all for meritocracy, but you can’t have real meritocracy without equality of opportunity. Eroding the great mountains of wealth and opportunity inequality down to rolling hills is neither anti-Capitalist nor Socialist; it’s pragmatic.
The last time we had a socioeconomic field desperately in need of re-leveling, we were “lucky” enough to stumble into a world war. The redistribution of wealth via war industry and veterans’ pensions created an awakening of talent and social mobility in contrast to the stagnation that extreme wealth concentration caused before the war. That awakening has lasted America seven decades.
We should not have to do it that way again just because the candidate who best understands the need to correct our system still prefers to use a dirty, outdated word.