What Bernie Sanders Can Teach the Canadian Left

This is the first in our Canadian Dimension discussion series about what we can learn from the Bernie Sanders campaign here in Canada. Canadian Dimension has a 32 member editorial collective with members located across unceded Indigenous territories, treaty lands and internationally. We have been critically discussing the Sanders campaign and look forward to sharing a diverse range of views in the days and weeks ahead.

Bernie Sanders has captured the imagination of leftists across Canada with his rhetoric, passion, and ability to appeal to millions of American electors, in a manner thought impossible only months ago. This is all the more impressive because he is proclaiming the language of democratic socialism as part of his campaign.

The point of this piece–and of Sanders’ broader effect on Canadian politics–isn’t so much based on whether or not he actually is a democratic socialist. Neither is it a debate on whether or not Sanders is running to the left of the NDP. These questions matter, but more productive for us is to look at how his campaign style and political linguistics demonstrate the viability of leftist endeavors. Most importantly, what is working so well for Sanders underscores the deficiencies of the contemporary NDP.

In my view, Sanders offers lessons to the NDP on three key themes: Taxes, class conflict, and the language of socialism. Again, the point isn’t if Sanders actually espouses socialism, or even Scandinavian social democracy, but that associating with such positions has served only to propel him to all-time polling highs, and rouse up working and middle class voters, who are donating historic amounts of money to his campaign.

The politics of personal income taxes showcase a notable divergence between Sanders and the NDP. Especially since Tom Mulcair became leader, the party has stood against any sort tax increases excepting modest corporate tax increases. In this, the NDP has tried to show itself as a party for all classes, arguing that while corporate taxes must be levied, higher taxes on the rich are unjust and confiscatory.

In this way, the timid NDP strategy is to try and make their taxation policy all things to all people. But what Bernie Sanders articulates frankly is that that the politics of taxation is inherently a politics of class conflict that has largely been dominated by the wealthy since the 1970s.

So while Tom Mulcair emphasized a tax system that served rich and poor alike, Sanders has been more strident about in whose interest he works. Not only has he railed against the ‘millionaire and billionaire’ classes, but he has reveled in–rather than shied away from–the class conflict implied in his campaign. Sanders understands, more than any NDP strategist is willing to admit, that a left victory doesn’t require the consent and contentment of the economic elite. If he was a wealthy hedge fund manager, Sanders would never vote for someone like himself:

“‘I’m not going to reassure them,’ he says. ‘Their greed, their recklessness, their illegal behavior has destroyed the lives of millions of Americans. Frankly, if I were a hedge fund manager, I would not vote for Bernie Sanders. And I would contribute money to my opponents to try to defeat him.’”

Additionally, Sanders has stated blatantly that he not only expects disdain from America’s wealthy, but welcomes it as FDR did in 1936.

And beyond this, Sanders is more honest about the need a democratic socialist society has for taxes. His plan entails tax increases on large swaths of the American population. The reasoning for this is sound: while undeniable that increased burdens should fall on those with disproportionate abilities to pay, democratic socialism is expensive, and requires greater contributions from all but the poorest.

This is a position the NDP has been too afraid to take choosing instead a cynical approach to the debt-taxation balance precisely because they could not square their desire to expand social programs, keep debt low, and not tax the nearly-oppressed rich. These are the tactics of fear, and the NDP needs to be brave in proclaiming that democratic socialism is going to be expensive. Hiding this from the voters won’t endear the party to them.

But most intriguing is that while the CCF-NDP for much of its existence has proudly utilized terms like democratic socialism to describe the party, in recent years it has officially and strategically excised socialism from the party vocabulary. This is being done just as the word socialism is gaining new prominence, due in no small part to the Sanders campaign

Now, to be fair, Sanders in efforts to expand upon his definition of democratic socialism differs quite substantially from prior generations of NDP leaders. While his definition is predicated on socialized healthcare and post-secondary education, economic redistribution, and other mild forms of market intervention, he largely wishes to forge a more equitable capitalism. This is contrasted from the desires of CCF-NDP leaders from Woodsworth to Broadbent, who saw reforms as a means towards the end of a capitalist Canada.

But Sanders’ democratic socialism, even if not fitting my personal definition of the term, still offers a great deal to Canada’s left in the here and now. The NDP, with a call for a democratic socialist society, can emphasize equality of opportunity, the importance of guaranteed basic standards of living, and the drive towards economic democracy as emphasized by public ownership in strategic and monopolistic sectors, and more forms of worker and community ownership within the commercial sector.

While democratic socialism may well take a different form in Canada than with Sanders, the latter has shown us that the public, even in a conservative nation like the United States, is clamoring for social and economic equality and democracy.

Americans are listening to Bernie Sanders; Canadians are listening to Bernie Sanders; NDP parliamentarians like Niki and Steve Ashton are listening to Bernie Sanders; the question remains: is the NDP as a whole listening?

Christo Aivalis is a professor of Canadian History, dedicated labour and socialist activist and believer that in Canada’s past lies its key to the future. This piece was originally published on his blog, Make this Your Canada.