Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign for the presidency has re-opened an American conversation about democratic socialism, and it's about time. The idea has never taken hold in the United States, although it's a respectable political philosophy in the rest of the world. Other countries have experimented with it in different ways. The socialist programs the Scandinavian countries have enjoyed, for example, have nothing in common with the totalitarian excesses of the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors. Britain has a national health service and France has free college education and free medical care. If we moved in a socialist direction, we could expect the United States to develop a uniquely American brand.
We have a solid foundation of programs that meet people's needs that are ill served by the private market. Americans do not think that profiteering makes sense when it comes to subways and buses, highways and roads, the postal service, education through high school, police and fire departments, cultural, educational and recreational centers such as parks, museums and libraries and a Social Security system. To the extent we have recently turned toward privatization of public functions, as in the case of private prisons or private toll roads, it has been disastrous. Where we have only gone halfway, making Medicare and Medicaid only available to some, we have left too many people out.
Conservatives ignore the benefits we all get from such programs and throw the word "socialist" around like an insult, hoping it sounds a magic alarm that will impede real progress. In the past, candidates running for office on the Socialist Party ticket have been automatically marginalized, regardless of the merit of their ideas. Eugene V. Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for president five times, garnering a maximum of 5.99 percent of the popular vote in 1912. Norman Thomas ran six times, with a best showing in 1932 of 2.23 percent of the popular vote. In 1934, Upton Sinclair wrote to Norman Thomas, "The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label."
Times, however, have changed. A Gallup Poll in June revealed that as many as 47 percent of Americans would vote for a socialist candidate for president if the person were qualified. At the first Democratic Party debate, Senator Sanders stood stage-center next to Hillary Clinton. All five candidates wrestled with ideas that he proposed, programs that would be good for average Americans. He supports making public colleges and universities tuition free; paying for education with a tax on Wall Street speculators; overturning the Citizens United decision and getting big corporate money out of electoral politics; investing one trillion dollars in our country's infrastructure, creating at least 13 million well-paying jobs; and raising the minimum hourly wage to $15. Senator Sanders also proposes making the United States a leader in saving the planet by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels; strengthening and expanding Social Security; making a commitment to racial justice to eliminate physical, political and economic violence against persons of color; closing the gender pay gap; providing paid family leave; reducing prescription drug prices; breaking up too-big-to-fail financial institutions; and truly making war the last resort in foreign policy.
These ideas are worth talking about. Why shouldn't the parents in a family of modest means be able to sit at the kitchen table in a solar-powered home and make plans to send their children to college, with the grandparents able to afford their medications without smuggling them in from Canada? Democratic socialism makes a lot more sense than poorly regulated capitalism, which has led to the greatest inequalities in wealth and income that this country has ever seen; and standing in the way of sensible approaches to climate change is driving us to the failsafe point for destroying our home planet.
For the moment, take your mind off the question of voting. As Senator Sanders has acknowledged, no single candidate can deliver on all of the programs he talks about. But if millions of people take the opportunity this campaign has given us to explore the merit of socialist programs, we could make major changes in our unfair economic system. Ideas matter. And they matter more when lots of people talk about them seriously. Ask your neighbors what they think of Bernie's proposals. Start a friendly debate about socialist ideas. Let's have a conversation about real choices and real possibilities.
Michael Avery (email@example.com) is professor emeritus at Suffolk Law School; Heidi Boghosian is a former executive director of the National Lawyers Guild.