by Phil Gasper and Tyler Zimmer, published November 24, 2015
IT IS taboo for mainstream politicians in the U.S. to look beyond our borders to find inspiration about how to better run our own society. When comparisons between the U.S. and other countries are made, Democrats as well as Republicans recite the exceptionalist myth that “the United States is the greatest country on earth, period.”
In the first debate of the Democratic primaries in October, Bernie Sanders broke with this stifling tradition. He argued that there is a great deal we can learn from countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. As he put it:
[W]hen you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not going to separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have medical and family paid leave.
According to Sanders, being a “democratic socialist” means fighting for progressive measures like these. However, in a more recent speech aimed at explaining to a mass audience what “democratic socialism” means, Sanders reverted to the more U.S.-centric approach. Rather than Scandinavia, his reference points were Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Sanders stated that programs such as Social Security and Medicare illustrate what socialism means to him. The only difference between the U.S. and Scandinavia, then, becomes a matter of degree–whereas the welfare state in the U.S. is anemic and limited, it’s robust and expansive in countries like Sweden.
On the one hand, we should welcome Sanders’ praise for “democratic socialism” and his frequent appeal to the virtues of Scandinavian social democracy. This is certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the patriotic, pro-capitalist chest-beating we’re accustomed to getting from most Democrats and Republicans when anyone questions American capitalism.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s response to Sanders exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the way mainstream politicians approach the issue: “[W]e are not Denmark…We are the United States of America…[W]e would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.”