“We need to stand together to make that political revolution, where we create an America and a government that works for all of us,” he said during his stump speech’s crescendo. “We can do it when we stand up. We can do it when we stand up and say enough is enough.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a figure also largely identified with the progressive movement, used similar language during her keynote speech. To make the point that a majoritarian progressive coalition is possible, she cited opinion polls finding that most Americans support tighter regulation of financial markets, a higher minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick leave and related measures.
“As different as we are, on these key economic issues that will shape the future of this country, America is progressive,” she said.
But the broad consensus that Sanders and Warren talk about may be much harder to build in the United States than it was in Scandinavia. The ideological divisions in the U.S. are much wider; the income gaps between the superrich, the affluent, the middle class and the poor are far greater, and the racial divisions, in particular, are much starker.
Political theorists are divided on whether ethnic uniformity is a necessary condition for building a stable social democracy. It certainly helped in Sweden, where one of the architects of the social democratic state, Per Albin Hansson, coined the term folkhemmet to describe his political vision, using folk, which carries a distinct overtone of ethnic solidarity.
It might not be a coincidence that the New Deal — arguably the closest thing the U.S. has ever had to a comprehensive social democratic program — gained the support of the Democratic Party’s Southern bloc by excluding black workers from key labor protections.
Sanders does not ignore racial inequality, but he focuses mostly on the economic issues that he says unite working-class people of all colors. Black Lives Matter remains unimpressed, and Sanders consistently polls in the single digits among black voters. A June CNN/ORC poll found him carrying 2 percent of black Democratic voters and 9 percent of nonwhite voters overall.
Ashley Yates, a St. Louis activist affiliated with Black Lives Matter, said it’s impossible to discuss economic inequality in the United States without emphasizing the role played by white supremacism.
“When you talk about economic justice, who’s the poorest of the poor? When you talk about gentrification, when you talk about mass displacement, when you talk about the things that actually contribute to poverty, who’s affected by that?” she said after the protest. “So if you’re doing economic justice and you’re not talking about black and brown people, you’re not actually doing economic justice.”
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner said progressives need a separate political program for dealing with racial disparity. “Progressives need to come together and address this issue head on, not wrap it in everybody else’s stuff but say separately that black lives matter and we’re going to push policies and do something about it,” said Turner, who is black.
That would entail rejecting the midcentury social democratic vision of a unified people’s platform to build a new, distinctly American social democratic vision that is more firmly rooted in the social and political history of the United States.
Sanders and O’Malley should have gotten off the stage during the Black Lives Matter protest and joined the activists where they stood, Turner said. “They should have come down to where they were and had a real conversation.”