In a blog I posted this July, I described the fictional President in Impeachment Day as “a female Bernie Sanders without the grump and the seventy-year-old gimp.” So does that make Bernie a sort of real life Sally Macalester – a true Progressive who wants real change? I believe it does, and it also raises an interesting question about Hillary Clinton’s snide putdown of Senator Sanders at the first Democratic debate. “We are not Denmark,” she scolded.
On one level she was right, of course. Obviously we’re a much bigger country on a different continent with a different language and history. But that’s not what Hillary was really talking about. She clearly meant that regarding the social programs for which Bernie advocates, we should not aspire to be like the Danes. I think that’s wrong. In my view she was pandering to the majority of Americans who likely agree with her, and thus intentionally avoided the real question: Why do we, more than any other developed country, take such a harsh approach to helping the disadvantaged?
Paul Krugman notwithstanding, most pundits avoided this question as well. They harrumphed that Hillary was right because our population is more diverse than in Scandinavia, our economy more entrepreneurial, and our military proportionally bigger so we can fulfill our role as the world’s benevolent superpower. Balderdash. Countries much larger than Denmark (Germany, for example) offer many of the same social benefits. And the “superpower military” rationale also fails. In 2014, 3.5% of our GDP went to the military. For Denmark the figure was 1.3%, but that doesn’t begin to explain the huge disparity in spending on social programs. Denmark allots 30% of its GDP to social programs, while the U.S. allocates a mere 19%. Denmark is a democratic and capitalist country, but its citizens apparently care more about the welfare of others. Or at least the Danes are willing to provide a much broader safety net for their less fortunate. The case is not terribly different in Germany, where approximately 26% of GDP goes to social programs and 1.2% to the military.
So much for size, capitalism, and military obligations as explanations for why we are not Denmark. That leaves the diversity excuse, which really comes down to a deeply seated racist matter of black and white, or maybe black, white, and brown. We actually are more open to immigration than most countries in Europe. Even though we’re now suffering through Donald Trump’s antics, we don’t have the kind of xenophobic right wing fascists who become serious political contenders in places like France, the Netherlands, Greece, and (yes) socially generous Denmark. And hostility to immigrants is really beside the point. Antipathy to social programs is about race, not immigration. Most of our black population (and much of our Hispanic population) was born here and goes way, way back, often to the Revolution. In terms of birth right history, many blacks can make a better case than all but a minority of whites.
Thomas Jefferson (both a democrat and a slaveholder) understood the racist paradox that has infected the United States from its beginning. In a famous letter, he wrote that “this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.” Nor was the Civil War a final sentence, or the election of Barack Obama. So long as a significant number of Americans think that social programs are for lazy, shiftless minorities who are “different from you and me,” we will foolishly keep all of us from enjoying simple common sense benefits like truly socialized medicine and education. They’re not free, of course, but they do in the long run make us all richer because a healthy, well-educated population is far more able to compete in a global economy. Until we all understand how and why black lives matter to all of us, the United States cannot reach its full greatness. That’s where Bernie Sanders wants to take us, and that’s the question Hillary is dodging when she blithely suggests we should not try to emulate Denmark or its social programs and norms.