The Democrats’ socialism problem

This op-ed was originally published at The Washington Times on December 14, 2015.

Since his first run for the White House, Barack Obama has mocked political opponents who have called him a socialist due to his promotion of class warfare, frequent calls for increased spending, and costly regulatory agenda. He was successful at making his political opponents look crazy, but Bernie Sanders‘ rise is a problem for the Democratic Party.

When Mr. Sanders began toying with the idea of a presidential bid, he made it clear that his run would focus on issues popular with the Democratic Party’s so-called “progressive” wing. Indeed, his campaign platform is filled with all sorts of “freebies” that will require massive increases in taxes and spending. His message is resonating. He captured 33 percent of registered Democrats in the most recent CBS News-New York Times poll, up from 27 percent in September.

During the summer, when Mr. Sanders began his ascent in the polls, MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz about the difference between a Democrat and a socialist. Initially speechless, she uncomfortably deflected. “The more important question is,” she said, “what is the difference between being a Democrat and being a Republican.”

In a separate appearance just days later on “Meet the Press,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz was asked the same question and, once again, she deflected by going after the Republican presidential candidates. Questions about socialism may be awkward for Democratic leaders, but Mr. Sanders and his team think his beliefs jive with the party.

Facing questions about delays related to a highly anticipated speech on socialism, Tad Devine, a strategist for Mr. Sanders‘ campaign, said that his boss is anxious for the “opportunity to explain how his political philosophy fits squarely into the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Sanders has praised the Scandinavian socialist model, which he wants the United States to emulate. “I think there’s much that we can learn from those countries that have had social democratic governments and labor governments or whatever,” he told USA Today.

Indeed, there is much we can learn, but the lesson isn’t about the perceived wonders of socialism, but rather how socialism has stunted economic growth and diminished prosperity. In reality, Sweden began moving away from socialism years ago. Apparently, Mr. Sanders never got the memo.

“The admired Swedish model was in fact abandoned in the 1970s, precisely when it gained its international fame and admiration. Then the world’s highest tax rates were introduced, together with interventionism, particularly in social policy and the labor market,” Waldemar Ingdahl wrote in The Freeman in 2007. “An ill-fated attempt to introduce the radical ‘next step’ toward Yugoslav-style trade-union-controlled socialism ended the decade.”

Similarly, Nima Sanandaji, author of “Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism,” explains that Sweden’s socialist experiment “proved such a colossal failure that few even in the left today view the memory as something positive.”

Sweden has continued to implement reforms to alleviate the burden of its generous welfare state. Its economy has grown and unemployment has fallen and as a result, though still not as successful as, say, Switzerland, which has been more market-oriented than Scandinavian countries.

Despite the clear case against Scandinavian socialism, Mr. Sanders has trotted out several proposals. Basically, he is Matthew Lesko, the annoying guy famous for his infomercial about “free” money, sans the over-the-top enthusiasm.

The price tag for Mr. Sanders‘ domestic policies, which include “free” tuition for college and “free” health care, hovers around $18 trillion over 10 years, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, though he has proposed tax increases to the tune of $6.5 trillion. How Mr. Sanders intends to pay for the rest of the massive spending increases isn’t clear because he hasn’t released the details of his tax plan, which will almost assuredly include tax hikes for the middle class.

It’s highly unlikely that Mr. Sanders will win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Nevertheless, he has been successful in moving Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton further to the left on economic policies — including destructive minimum wage increases, trade protectionism and radical environmentalism — though perhaps not as far as he’d like.

Still, Mr. Sanders‘ presence in the race and success in moving Mrs. Clinton to the left may, unless Republicans nominate a divisive candidate, drive voters away from Democrats next year and cost them the White House, which would be a welcome result.