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Is Bernie Sanders Really The First Socialist To Run For President?

Bernie Sanders is not the only socialist to run for president. He is unusual in seeking the Democratic nomination, but he joins others in using the election process to educate the public.

Eugene V. Debs ran five times for president between 1900 and 1920, with his last campaign run from prison. Norman Thomas sought the office six times between 1928 and 1948. Both did so as representatives of the Socialist Party, with little hope of being elected but in the desire to give voice to the socialist platform.

Regardless of whether he wins or loses the nomination, Sanders will have achieved the same purpose.

While “socialism” may still be a dirty word on conservative talk radio, the Sanders approach makes it seems more than respectable in light of the GOP’s mudwrestling debates. (Almost anything would.)  If nothing else, Sanders is consistent — although frequently outright repetitive — in his attacks on Wall Street, greedy bankers, and overly powerful corporations. His advocacy of free tuition at public universities, single-payer medical care, and opposition to free trade are part and parcel of his program of domestic change. His foreign policy reveals a distinct antipathy to regime change.

While the domestic agenda may seem radical to some, when socialists actually held office the government they provided often did not veer much from the norm. This usually occurred at the local level.

Socialists achieved greatest success during the early decades of the 20th century, the Progressive era. Historian James Weinstein found that in 1912 socialists held some 1,200 public offices in 340 municipalities from coast to coast, among them 79 mayors in 24 states.

Even after that time, a city like Bridgeport elected Jasper McLevy, a socialist, as mayor between 1933 and 1957. Like other such elected officials, he provided “gas and water socialism” — that is, reform government within the existing economic framework.

Constrained by the need to stay in power and win elections, and limited by city charters and other factors, these mayors left unsatisfied the ultimate demands of socialism — nationalization of the means of production and distribution, democratic planning, and production for use rather than profit.

A Bridgeport manufacturer remarked about McLevy, “To McLevy this city is his business, just as much as my factory is my business.”

Almost a quarter of a century after McLevy left office, Sanders was elected as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. His tenure between 1981, when he ran as an independent, and 1989 fit the pattern set by earlier local socialists.

As a consequence of Sanders’ emphasis on Burlington’s economic development, he too attracted the support of business. But Sanders also humanized government through affordable housing and a publicly owned scenic waterfront open to all residents.

In the unlikely event that the nation “feels the Bern” and Sanders becomes president, the previous socialist mayoralties are likely to serve as precursors to tenure in the White House. Overwhelming constraints will limit the “revolution” to which the Vermont senator aspires.

This would certainly be the case if Sanders was elected with a Republican Congress. Its current obstructionism would pale in light of facing off with every Republican’s nightmare — a socialist. Even if he swept a Democratic Congress into authority, Sanders would have a hard time contending with the forces of capitalism.

Nevertheless, in the tradition of Debs and Thomas, Sanders would have the opportunity to open an entire new generation of Americans to the meaning of socialism.

That, alone, is his major contribution to the nation’s politics in this curious election year.

Bruce M. Stave, a Coventry resident, includes the book “Socialism and the Cities” among his publications.

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