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Gerald Caplan
Gerald Caplan

Gerald Caplan

Bernie Sanders an extremist? Only in America Add to ...

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics.

Only in America would Bernie Sanders be regarded as an extremist – more precisely, as the extreme left-wing equivalent of Trump and Cruz. So Bernie ( as he’s universally known) is not likely to be the Democratic candidate, let alone the next president. Anyway, if he somehow fluked a win he’d be driven out in a month. Maybe less. A crying shame, but an American reality. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman put it, Bernie is “the far left,” while Trump and Cruz are “the far right.”

Mr. Friedman goes further and describes Sanders as a socialist whose ideas “died in 1989.” Hello? Wasn’t 1989 the dissolution of the USSR and the death of Soviet-style communism? Not only does Mr. Friedman malign Sanders by comparing him with “borderline fascists” like Trump and Cruz (Friedman’s words), he seems not to understand the difference between socialism and communism.

Mr. Friedman’s characterization is par for the course – three so-called radicals or extremists at both ends of the spectrum. On Politico.com, a psychologist narrows it to two: “The most startling thing about the 2016 presidential race has been the rise of two strident populists, Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.” Both of them, it suggests, are pretty well equally nuts. Trump himself calls Sanders a “communist.”

There is a word for this analysis, and the word is ignorant. It’s true all three men are on the outskirts of the American political spectrum, but that says far more about the fringiness of American political culture today than Bernie’s ideology. After all, the remaining GOP candidates, most of them crackpots, are now considered mainstream, even moderates.

But Bernie really is. At least he would be in Canada, where he’d be just a mainstream member of the NDP. If he calls himself a democratic socialist rather than a social democrat, it’s probably because not a dozen Americans have a clue what social democracy might mean. In the U.K., he’d likely be in the moderate anti-Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Labour party. In Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Spain, all the Nordic countries, he’d be a middle-of-the-road member of existing social democratic parties. He’d be enthusiastically embraced by tens of millions of people.

Across the rich world, only in the United States is Bernie Sanders seen as some kind of extremist of the left. It shows just how dangerously far to the radical right America’s political culture has moved.

Sanders situates himself four-square within the tradition of American reformers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the view of many historians, FDR, president through most of the Great Depression of the 1930s, saved American capitalism from its capitalists.

Nor does Sanders embrace such once-classic, now-abandoned left-wing nostrums such as the nationalization of industries. “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production,” he told students at Georgetown University. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down.” Throw in a couple of “hard-workings” here and there, and Comrade Bernie could jump right into the middle of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party.

Nowhere are the absurd limits of American politics better exposed than when Sanders is bitterly pummelled for supporting something really far-out, even near-Bolshevik – a Canadian-style public health system.

Last October, a voter challenged Bernie. “I come from a generation where [socialism] is a pretty radical term – we think of socialism [with] communism. Can you explain to us exactly what that is?” Bernie: “If we go to some countries, what they will have is health care for all as a right. I believe in that. They will have paid family and medical leave. I believe in that. They will have a much stronger childcare system than we have, which is affordable for working families. I believe in that.”

“What I mean by democratic socialism,” Bernie explained, “is looking at countries in Scandinavia that have much lower rates of child poverty, that have a fairer tax system that guarantees basic necessities of life to working people. Essentially what I mean by that is creating a government that works for working families, rather than the kind of government we have today, which is largely owned and controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations.”

Whatever you call Bernie’s vision, bring it on! It’s what every civilized society should provide its citizens as a right. It’s what the NDP has long stood for.

Last month in California I met several Americans who proudly displayed their Bernie badges. I envied them having Bernie. He feels his socialist convictions with a passion badly missing in Canada these days. Watching him and Hillary debate, Bernie’s unabashed, egalitarian ardour and zeal had me jumping from my chair and cheering. I’d follow him anywhere. No wonder American millennials adore and trust him.

Yet the excitement he’s been generating regularly across the U.S. was never once triggered by the NDP during all those election months last year. New Democrats await their Bernie still.

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