Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who did not have a great performance in Wednesday’s Democratic debate, nevertheless said something interesting.
“We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” Bloomberg said. “We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”
I’m unclear on when “we”—as in the United States—tried communism, but it was still good to hear a Democrat say something nice about capitalism.
Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t like it though.
“Let’s talk about democratic socialism. Not communism, Mr. Bloomberg,” Sanders said. “That’s a cheap shot. Let’s talk about—let’s talk about what goes on in countries like Denmark …”
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has a point. It’s unfair to use the label “communist” to describe countries that adhere to social democracy (another way of saying democratic socialism, though there are ideological debates about whether the terms are interchangeable).
That’s because the defining feature of social democracy (or democratic socialism) is democracy. Not only do social democratic nations hold elections, they abide by them. Moreover, democracies worthy of the name adhere to things like constitutional rights and human rights—including property rights—and the rule of law.
None of these things apply to communist countries such as China under Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro’s Cuba or the old Soviet Union. Those countries were authoritarian or totalitarian, hostile to human rights and contemptuous of democracy.
This, by the way, is an important point, since if the GOP has its way, the 2020 election will be a contest between socialism and capitalism, and a lot of people will throw around “communism” in much the same way Bloomberg did.
Still, there are some problems with Sanders’ answer—an answer he has used in various forms for years.
First, while it’s true that Sanders does not advocate communism, it’s also true that when communism was still a live proposition in the Soviet Union, Sanders lavished praise on it. It’s also true that he remains bizarrely fond of other non-democratic socialist regimes, including Cuba’s. So while he may not be proposing communism for the U.S. per se, the fact that Sanders isn’t horrified by communist countries should tell you something about how far he might like to take socialism here.
Sanders supported a Marxist-Leninist party that backed the Iranian Revolution and the hostage-taking of Americans. In 1985, he supported the effort by Daniel Ortega, the Soviet-backed Sandinista leader of Nicaragua, to suppress opposition newspapers. Until recently, Sanders was supportive of the dictatorship in Venezuela.
In 2016, when this record started to catch up to him, Sanders said: “When I talk about democratic socialism, I’m not talking about Venezuela, I’m not talking about Cuba.” As he said on Wednesday night, he’s talking about places like Denmark or, as he’s said at other times, Sweden or Norway.
But just as Cuba and the Soviet Union were never the workers’ paradises Sanders sometimes suggested, those European countries aren’t the socialist nirvanas he claims either. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague James Pethokoukis has noted, “The egalitarian Nordic nations have as many billionaires, relatively, as the U.S. and more concentrated wealth, at least as measured by the share of wealth controlled by the top 10 percent.” The Nordic countries are also free-traders and have many of the pro-business policies that Sanders despises here at home.
Sanders, who favors single-payer health care, routinely says we should follow the example of Scandinavian and other countries. He recently tweeted a list of 27 nations with universal health care. But National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out that not one of the countries listed has single-payer health care.
It’s true that the Nordic countries used to be closer to what Sanders has in mind. But that was decades ago—back when Bernie was heaping praise on communist countries. Those governments recognized that such policies were bad for the economy as a whole, and for the people too. Sure, some European countries have more generous welfare states and more progressive taxation than we do. Most also have much worse unemployment and economic growth. But all of that is grist for a different argument than the one Sanders offers. He has an impressive record of seeing only what he wants to see rather than what is—at home and abroad.
And it doesn’t seem like a cheap shot to me to point out that Sanders got the reality of communism wrong in the past and the rest of the world wrong in the present.
Photograph of Bernie Sanders by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.