Coming back from a recent trip, I picked up a newspaper at the airport. There was a choice of the Globe and Mail, the National Post . . . and Le Devoir, an influential Québec newspaper, originally established by the nationalist politician Henri Bourassa in in 1910.
It was a little odd to see Le Devoir at the Toronto airport, almost like reading an alternative newspaper. It’s always good to see a different take on things, and one of the columnists even made the argument that there are a lot of similarities, at least of style, between Justin Trudeau and Céline Dion.
But I was especially interested by a commentary about the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was written by Samuel Lamoureux, a Montréal journalism student. He was impressed by the success Sanders has had in winning support, especially from young people — and without heavy media spending.
And, he pointed out, Sanders has been unabashed about using the scary “S” word of American politics: socialism.
He went on to quote a survey from last May, when a poll asked Democratic voters what they thought of the merits of capitalism and socialism. The results were surprisingly balanced, with an equal number of people (43 per cent) favouring each. By October, once the Sanders campaign was well underway, the same survey found 49 per cent of respondents had a positive image of socialism, compared to 37 per cent for capitalism.
Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and has a portrait of the original Socialist Party of America leader, Eugene Debs, in his office. (Debs ran for president five times, receiving almost one million votes in 1912 and again in 1920). While the Vermont Senator is certainly a man of the left, it is doubtful he is a socialist by any significant measure. In Canada, he might be relatively comfortable in a social democratic party such as the New Democrats.
None of that matters much in the light of the Sanders message. As Barack Obama’s “yes we can” fades into the sunset of historical optimisms, America once again seems to be in the grips of a great malaise. As Obama found earlier, there is a lot of populism out there, and Donald Trump and the Republicans have shown that it can run far to the right.
The country needs a new vocabulary. In both cases, there is a feeling that the “system” is not working. Whether they are socialists or not, the Sanders supporters are at least making the case that things need to change in the direction of greater accountability and responsibility on the part of the capitalist system.
In the wake of the recent snowstorms in the United States, it was interesting to see how a “socialist snowplows” meme started to circulate on the Internet. As one blogger put it, “Socialist snow plows keep clearing all the roads around my house. Will this Obama tyranny never end?” Tea Party bloggers did not find it funny.
Obviously snowplows are not the sum total of socialism, but for many Americans, the defence of public services may be a start. Sanders may not make the presidential ballot, but he is making the most of his chance to deliver a message. And it seems that large numbers of Americans are prepared to listen.
David Frank is a former professor of history at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.