In a recent speech at George Washington University, Senator Bernie Sanders called for a revisal and completion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “economic bill of rights”, which the thirty-second president proposed just a year before his death in 1945. Like FDR, Sanders advocates for vast governmental redistribution of wealth – a policy proposition which has labeled both democratic progressives as socialists. Unlike FDR, however, Sanders wears the label proudly. In his view, socialism – at least democratic socialism – does not deserve its bad reputation, and in his speech, Sanders rebukes President Trump and other “oligarchs” who use it as a “slur.”
Instead, Sanders paints democratic socialism as the true backbone of American society, as it created the social institutions we all now take for granted: Social Security, Medicaid, infrastructure, public education, and a clean environment. To Sanders, it is these privileges, among others he wishes to install, which give Americans true freedom. The Constitution’s Bill of Rights was a good place to start, but until these newer privileges are accepted as not just privileges, but additional rights, it will be impossible for Americans to have the means to pursue happiness. By citing the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence in this way, Sanders attempts to synthesize his socialist policies with the principles of the American Founding.
Sanders is correct when he says we take these social institutions for granted. However, that does not necessarily mean these social institutions are “rights.” They are, in fact, privileges, and nothing more. To categorize them as equivalent to the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights is to ignore how different the former and latter are in nature. Most of the rights in the Bill of Rights require no action from external parties in order to be enjoyed. An individual can speak freely, keep a firearm in his home, or be secure in his possessions without the help, time, or tools of another. The rights in the Bill of Rights which do not follow this trend, such as the right to trial by jury, are unique because they only apply to someone who has already broken the law or at least is suspected to have broken the law.
In contrast, every single “right” in the economic bill of rights requires action from an external party. If an individual wants quality health care, affordable housing, or complete education, someone else must provide them with it. These “rights” are inherently collective, not individual, as they require the forced action of others in order to be enjoyed. That forced action can only be brought about by a strong, powerful government – the last thing the creators of the Bill of Rights wanted for this country. While Sander’s vision may sound noble, it is fundamentally incompatible with America’s core values – truly, as Sanders says, only a “political revolution” could actualize it.
A recent poll released by Fox News shows that Sanders is more popular among registered voters than President Trump, and if the 2020 election were held today, Sanders would beat him. Does this mean Americans have embraced Sander’s socialist vision for the future? Certainly, some have – four in ten Americans support at least some form of socialism according to a recent Gallup poll. Another thing to consider is that many voters are simply turned off by Trump’s personality and care little about policy one way or another. However, what many people forget is the simple ignorance which plagues our country’s political landscape. Numerous polls have shown that most Americans, especially young Americans, lack basic knowledge of the Revolutionary War, the content of Founding documents, and the structure of the United States government. Perhaps, if more Americans knew what we were and where we came from, they would form clearer judgments about where we should go.