How Tocqueville Schooled Bernie Sanders 200 Years Ago

By Published on December 30, 2015

Since a self-described democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders, is a major contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, and polls suggest one-third of American millennials and over 40 percent of self-described Democrats view socialism favorably, perhaps it’s time to be attentive to great nineteenth-century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s highly critical opinion of socialism.

Most Americans who express positive opinions of socialism, I expect, have some type of European social democracy in mind. Generally speaking, that seems to be what Sanders proposed in his November 19 speech at Georgetown University, in which he defined what he means by democratic socialism.

Sanders made clear that he did not favor government control of the means of production à la Marxism-Leninism. Sanders also specified that he supported private businesses (as long as they don’t shift assets and jobs off-shore) and thinks innovation and entrepreneurship should be rewarded. Picking up on widespread and legitimate frustration with crony capitalism, Sanders underscored his opposition to bailouts and corporate welfare more generally.

It’s More of a Soft Socialism

So where, you might ask, is the collectivism? Seeking to root his democratic socialism in American experiences, Sanders essentially proposed a return to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and extending the economically activist government agendas associated with these endeavors. Freedom, Sanders maintained, requires government-provided economic security.


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