Speaking to George Stephanopoulus on ABC News’ “This Week” three weeks ago, the recently declared Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders identified himself with the “the democratic socialism” of Scandinavia. In Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, Sanders told Stephanopoulos, politics and society are “very democratic…health care is the right of all people…college education, graduate school is free…retirement benefits, childcare are stronger than in the United States of America. And in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”
“I can hear the Republican attack ad right now,” Stephanopolous said, “He wants American to look more like Scandinavia.” Sanders shot back: “And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a … higher minimum wage than we do, and they are stronger on the environment…? Look…we can learn from other countries. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth, at the same time as we are seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires. Frankly, I don’t think that is sustainable. I don’t think that’s what America is about.”
One could certainly argue with Sanders about how democratic and socialist his “Nordic model” countries really are and about whether or not savage inequality is “what America is about” (maybe it is). Still, it’s nice, I suppose, to see a major party presidential candidate look past the doctrinal blinders of American Exceptionalism to embrace the social and democratic accomplishments of people in other nations and to advance the notion that the U.S. might (imagine) have something to “learn from other countries.”
Nearly nine years ago, any lingering doubts that I might have harbored about the reactionary nature of the soon-to-announced Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama were undone by reading numerous American-exceptionalist passages in Obama’s 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope. There Obama mused rhapsodically on “just how good” even “our [the United States’] poor…have it” compared to their more destitute counterparts in Africa and Latin America. Obama took this comparison to be evidence for his argument in Audacity that US capitalism – “the logic of the marketplace” and “private property at the very heart of our system[s] of liberty [and] social organization” – had brought Americans “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” Obama omitted considerably less American-friendly contrasts between the US and its fellow rich nations in Western Europe and Asia (Japan), where capitalism comes with
considerably more social equality and security than can be found in militantly hierarchical nations like Haiti, Nigeria, South Africa, and the United States.
This was a very different approach from that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Obama has claimed as a major influence and whose bust sits behind the “first Black president” in the Oval Office. A “democratic socialist” like Sanders, King challenged American Exceptionalism in the summer of 1966, when he noted the greater poverty that existed in the United States compared to other First World states. “Maybe something is wrong with our [capitalist] economic system,” King told an interviewer, observing that there was no or little poverty, slums, and unemployment in “democratic socialist” countries like Sweden. The “beacon to the world” and “city on a hill” had something to “learn from other countries” King was suggesting. The learning process, King felt, meant “question[ing] the capitalistic economy” since “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Against Spiritual Death
But here the parallel between Sanders today and the mid-late 1960s King drops off in a critical way. King’s increasingly open left sentiments (he ended his life advocating mass civil disobedience on behalf of “the radical reconstruction of society itself”) were intimately connected to his righteous and eloquent criticism of the American military empire. For King by at least 1966, the Black-led poor people’s struggle against American poverty and inequality was inextricably bound up with radical criticism of the mass-murderous US war on Vietnam and the US Empire more broadly. King referred repeatedly to what he called the nation’s “triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and militarism/imperialism. As King explained in a 1967 speech titled “Where Do We Go From Here”: “The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them.”
At New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before he was killed), King described the United States as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today.” He mentioned some of the horrible things he had learned about US actions in Southeast Asia:
“[The Vietnamese] must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”
King broke with both sides of the American Exceptionalist coin: (A) the notion that the United States is so breathtakingly splendid that it has nothing to learn from the rest of the world and everything to teach others and (B) the notion that the United States is unique among world history’s great powers in the fundamentally benevolent, democratic, humanitarian, and non-(and even anti-) imperial intention and nature of its foreign policies.
For King, it was both immoral and impractical to break with only the first side of the coin. Explaining why he had turned openly and loudly against the Vietnam War, King noted that “a burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964: I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to work harder that I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances …to the making of peace” (Barack Kill List Obama had a different take on his Nobel Peace award).
In a series of lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting System, King reflected on the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967. He made no apologies for Black urban violence. He blamed “the white power structure…still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality intact” for the disturbances. He found the leading cause of the riots in the reactionary posture of “the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change,” which” produc[ed] chaos” by telling Blacks “that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor.”
King also blamed the riots to no small degree on Washington’s “war in [here he might have better said “on”] Vietnam.” The military aggression against Southeast Asia, King noted, sent poor blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It advanced the notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems. It also stole resources from the federal government’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.” As King ruefully observed at Riverside Church:
“There is…a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging [against poverty and racism] in America. A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
Budgetary matters and the particulars of Vietnam aside, King added that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
In answering his “call…beyond national allegiances,” King stood to the portside of leading U.S. 1960s social democrats like Bayard Rustin, A Phillip Randolph, and Michael Harrington. These and other left leaders (e.g. Max Shachtman and Tom Kahn) were unwilling to forthrightly oppose the US-imperial assault on Indochina because of their misplaced faith in pursuing the fight against poverty in alliance with the pro-war Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO.
Rustin, Harrington, and Randolph were practical as well as moral fools on this score. Besides opposing the war on moral grounds, King understood very well that the expenses of empire precluded serious anti-poverty spending.
Bernie’s Imperial Omission
Which brings us back to Bernie Sanders. Anyone who wants to bring the “Nordic model” of “democratic socialism” to the United States must surely confront a core and critical difference between the United States and Scandinavia. Forty-seven years after King’s assassination and despite the disappearance of any credible military rival to the US with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon budget today accounts for more than half of US federal discretionary spending (symptomatic of “a society gone mad on war”). The US generates nearly half of all military spending on the planet. This giant war and empire (“defense”) expenditure ($1.2-1.4 trillion or more each year) maintains (among other things) more than 1000 US military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations. “Financially,” the U.S. peace and justice activist David Swanson writes, “war is what the U.S. government does. Everything else is a side show.”
Military outlays on the current U.S. scale carry enormous social, human, and environmental, opportunity costs. They cancel out spending to address massively unmet social, human, and environmental needs – needs that Sanders talks about in knowledgeable, populist, and properly angry terms. The trade-offs are disturbing. As Swanson observed last December:
“The cost of one weapons system that doesn’t work could provide every homeless person with a large house. A tiny fraction of military spending could end starvation at home and abroad. The Great Student Loan Struggle takes place in the shadow of military spending unseen in countries that simply make college free, countries that don’t tax more than the United States, countries that just don’t do wars the way the U.S. does. You can find lots of other little differences between those countries and the U.S. but none of them on the unfathomable scale of military spending or even remotely close to it”(emphasis added).
Military budgets are drastically smaller in Scandinavia, to say the least. Defense accounts for 3.1% of central government spending in Finland, 3.2% in Denmark, 4.3% in Sweden, and 4.8% in Norway.
So where is the call to drastically slash the Pentagon System and introduce a great social and environmental peace dividend in the Sweden- flattering Sanders’ program for social-democratic change on the Nordic model in the United States? Nowhere. As Swanson notes, Sanders’ politics and policy agenda are usefully acronym-ized as “PEP” to mean not just “Progressive Except for Palestine” (standard among top Democratic politicians, the nominally “independent” and pro-Israel Sanders included) but also “Populist Except for the Pentagon.” Sanders’ top 12 proposals include calls for major investments in infrastructure, measures and programs to reverse climate change, an end to corporate welfare, federal support for worker-owned coops, a real livable minimum wage, the restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, equal pay for women, single-payer health insurance (Medicare for All), progressive taxation, expanded Social Security, college affordability, the break-up of the big Wall Street banks, and end to NAFTA, CAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China.
This is all good and essential stuff that Leftists, left-leaning progressives, and others have been advocating for quite some time. Still, there are three glaring omissions. First, there’s no call for a Financial Transaction Tax – for a levy on transactions made by the nations’ hugely profitable, taxpayer-subsidized and federally protected financial giants. Such a tax would create significant public revenue to fund federal social and environmental programs.
Second, there’s no reference to the nation’s savage racial disparities or to the intimately related problems of persistent de facto racial apartheid and racist mass arrest, incarceration, felony-marking, and police abuse. This is a glaring oversight in light of Ferguson (Michael Brown), Staten Island (Eric Garner), Baltimore (Freddie Gray) – to mention just the top three racial hotspots of 2014 and 2015 – and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest the ongoing epidemic racist police killings across the country.
Third, and most relevant to the main topic of this essay, there’s nothing on the need to drastically cut the nation’s giant “rogue superpower” military budget, itself a giant form of corporate welfare and the revenue source for “the single biggest contributor to climate change, namely the military” (Swanson). By Swanson’s analysis, this conspicuous and social-democratically self-defeating omission is explained largely by the fact that Sanders (who supported the Pentagon’s installation of a hugely expensive F-35 fighter jet base in Vermont in the name of “jobs” and “growth”) at the end of the day is on board with the American military project:
“What do you invest in infrastructure? It’s not as though Sanders doesn’t know about the trade-offs….he blames ‘the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq’ for costing $3 trillion. He says he wants infrastructure instead of wars. But routine ‘base’ military spending is $1.3 trillion or so each and every year. It’s been far more in recent years than all the recent wars, and it generates the wars as Eisenhower warned it would. It also erodes the economy…The same dollars moved [from the military] to infrastructure would produce many more jobs and better paying ones. Why not propose moving some money [out of the Pentagon]? Why not include it in the list of proposals? In Sanders’ case, I think he’s partly a true believer in militarism. He wants good wars instead of bad wars (whatever that means) despite the belief in ‘good wars’ requiring ongoing military spending. And partly, I think, he comes at it from a deep habit of ‘supporting’ the troops and veterans for both sincere and calculating reasons. He’s also a PEP in the Palestine sense.”
The problem is more than just fiscal and budgetary. It’s also moral and spiritual. If Dr. King were alive today, he would denounce the “spiritual doom” at the heart of the contradiction between the United States’ gargantuan military spending and the comparative paltriness of its welfare state in a time when 1 in 5 US children live in food insecure households and 14.7 million US children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. At the same time, King, unlike Sanders, would not be able to stay silent about such appalling crimes as US client state Israel’s horrific killing of many hundreds of children in Gaza last year and in 2008. King would never join Sanders in keeping mum about the vicious “collateral damage” inflicted on civilians by President Kill List’s endless jihad-recruiting drone strikes across the Muslim world.
Sanders has transcended one side of the American Exceptionalist trap – the notion that the U.S. has nothing to learn from other countries and people. Great. The other, foreign policy side of the trap still exercises great pull over him as it did over previous U.S. progressives who could not break free from the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party. And here’s the rub: clinging to the second side of the trap (the notion of a good American Empire and “good [US] wars”) tends to render null and void a politician’s effort to act on his or her rejection of the first side by advancing progressive social and democratic and environmental policies of uber-white Scandinavian – or French or German or (in a less Caucasian vein) Latin American (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, Cuba?) – inspiration. Is this not an almost embarrassingly elementary lesson of post-World War II US history for any “Left” worth its label? Uncle Sam cannot fund a “Nordic” social democracy to end poverty, provide free and high quality health care, fund college, build green infrastructure, avert global warming and generally advance equality, sustainability and justice at home while also paying for a giant military war and empire machine at home and abroad. He has to choose. And so does Bernie if he wants more Left progressives to take his “democratic socialism” more seriously. Along the way, it would help if he would pay more explicit attention to the United States’ appalling racial disparities and oppression.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).