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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Why Voters May Not Actually Care That Bernie Sanders Calls Himself a Socialist

The 2016 presidential candidate is planning to tell America what he means by "Democratic socialism." But maybe he doesn't have to.

by Livia Gershon
Oct 21 2015, 1:12am

Bernie Sanders in Phoenix, Arizona, trying to incite a revolution. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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When Bernie Sanders got behind the podium for the first Democratic presidential debate last week, it was clear that he had a different mission than anyone else on stage. Other candidates used their opening statements to talk about their children, their wives, the things they'd accomplished while in office. They thanked Anderson Cooper and Facebook, and noted how grateful they were to be in Las Vegas that night.

Sanders had no time for these pleasantries. Grimacing and gesticulating like an angry Brooklyn deli man, the Vermont Senator launched into a diatribe about declining wages for American workers, youth unemployment, climate change, and Citizens United. "What this campaign is about," he concluded abruptly, "is whether we can mobilize our people to take back our government from a handful of billionaires and create the vibrant democracy we know we can and should have."

In almost any other presidential election year, Sanders and his hair-on-fire populism would be dismissed as a novelty, notable for his hair-on-fire populism and remarkable resemblance to Larry David, but otherwise a non-factor. But this is the Democratic Party in 2015 and to almost everyone one's surprise, a 74-year-old self-described Socialist is the second most important candidate vying for the party's nomination. The question now is whether Sanders' success has come because of, or in spite of, his unabashed embrace of that coded label.

The issue came up early in the debate last Tuesday, with Anderson Cooper citing a poll that found most Americans wouldn't vote for a socialist. Would Sanders, he asked, call himself a capitalist?

"Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy?" Sanders snapped back. "No, I don't. I believe in a society where all people do well."

Then, as elderly newspaper columnists blinked disbelievingly, the audience erupted in cheers. Clinton, however, smelled blood in the water, and deftly distanced herself from her unexpected rival. "It's our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn't run amok and doesn't cause the kind of inequities we're seeing in our economic system," she said. "But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world."

The truth is, on the surface at least, Sanders and Clinton don't sound so different. Both talk often about the problems of inequality, the student debt crisis, the need to rein in big banks. But when Sander digs slightly deeper—as he does virtually every time he's on the stump—he reveals a hotter ideological fire. He doesn't just want to defend Social Security, he wants to expand it; he loves single-payer healthcare, thinks college should be free for everyone, and generally would like to supersize the federal government. Bernie Sanders' America would look more like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—three Scandinavian social democracies the candidate often praises for their hand-on approach to caring for the basic needs of their citizens.

In fact, for someone running for president of the United States, Sanders is shockingly eager to talk about the ways the country sucks. He's noted the high rates of child poverty in the US, the lack of universal healthcare, the absence of paid family leave that is standard in other wealthy, industrial nations. At one point last week, he actually called the US an "international embarrassment."

The idea that someone who says stuff like that could become commander in chief seems ludicrous to most pundits. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has been particularly adamant on this point, writing that a Sanders presidency "just ain't happening," and noting that while Democrats like the Vermont Senator, they don't actually think he can win.

Sanders is apparently determined to prove that wrong. Acknowledging that Americans tend to "get very, very nervous" by the whole socialism thing, Sanders announced this week that he will soon give a speech defining just what he means when he calls himself a "Democratic socialist."

"To me, democratic socialism means democracy. It means creating a government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in the country," he said at a campaign event in Iowa. "When you go to your public library, when you call your Fire Department or the Police Department, what do you think you're calling?" he continued. "These are socialist institutions."

It's hard to imagine that millions of American voters could ever be convinced that Scandinavian-style socialism is awesome. But in Sanders' home state, at least, the Senator's record suggests the idea may not be as crazy as it sounds.

Ken Corey, an unlikely socialist sympathizer in Sanders' home state. Photo by Livia Gershon

By now, you probably know that Sanders began his political career as the mayor of the patchouli-scented college town of Burlington, Vermont. But for the past 15 years, since winning his first congressional race in 1990, he's been getting most of his votes from parts of the state that are more Dunkin' Donuts and NASCAR than organic farming communes and drum circles.

Rutland County, for example, sends mostly Republicans to the Vermont state legislature; in 2014, the GOP's gubernatorial candidate took Rutland by a sizable margin, beating the Democratic incumbent there with 54 percent of the vote (he lost statewide). Yet, when Sanders was last up for re-election, in 2012, 65 percent of Rutland County voters chose their Socialist Senator.

Obviously, Sanders gets a lot of support from the liberals who colonized Vermont in the 1960s and 70s, a Big City exodus that the Brooklyn-born radical himself was an integral part of. But since winning national office, Sanders has also gotten lots of love from the original Vermonters, the old school, working-class New Englanders more likely to belong to the National Rifle Association than the Sierra Club.

"He was able to connect with poor people in places like the Northeast Kingdom, the corner of the state with the most poverty," said University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson, the local expert on Bernie's career. Sanders, he explained, has managed to make the federal government's more socialist programs—particularly the VA healthcare system, which happens to be the closest thing the US has to socialized medicine—work for working-class voters who might otherwise shudder at the S-word.

According to John McClaughry, a conservative former Republican state legislator who runs Vermont's only free-market think tank, said Sanders plays to some of the same populist impulses as many politicians on the far right. He recalled one one election, he said, he and Sanders were the two top vote-getters in one tiny farm town despite being polar opposites ideologically.

"Bernie's always fed on envy and class warfare," said McClaughry. "Politically, he's done pretty well without being one of the people that is always triangulating or compromising or somehow playing both sides of the issue. Bernie doesn't do that. He plays only the socialist side of the issue, for which I give him some grudging respect."

Vermont Republican Mary Ellen Grace has been feeling #TheBern for years. Photo by Livia Gershon

I ran into one unlikely socialist sympathizer recently at a Rutland City dollar store. Mary Ellen Grace, a retired banker who was shopping for party supplies, said she voted for Vermont's Republican gubernatorial candidate in the last election and generally leans to the right politically. But she's been supporting Sanders for years. "I like him," Grace told me. "I feel as though he understands we middle-class people." She worries about the job prospects for her children, and thinks families like hers are disappearing. Bernie, she said, gets that.

Nearby, outside of a building supplies store, I talked to Ken Corey, a shuttle driver for a local Ford dealership and the kind of working-class white guy generally assumed to be put off by liberals. Corey told me he considers himself an Independent, but votes for "whoever I think will do good for the country." He also told me he's a big Bernie fan. "Bringing the minimum wage up, I think, is good," he said.

While it's easy—and not entirely inaccurate—to dismiss Vermont as a liberal state where even some Republicans fall left-of-center by national standards, Sanders' success there hints at the broad appeal of his message, and underscores the oft-forgotten fact that American political preferences frequently don't fall along a simple left-right continuum. A Pew report published last year confirms this political indecisiveness, showing that only 36 percent of the general public hold views that place them cleanly in a particular political camp. Meanwhile, the term "socialism" is becoming a less effective insult as the Cold War era fades from popular memory: One recent survey revealed that Americans under 30 were nearly as likely to have a positive view of socialism as they were of capitalism.

Mike Spafford at his eponymous Country Store. Photo by Livia Gershon

If I needed more evidence of the ideological inconsistency of the American electorate, I found it in Mike Spafford, the owner of Mike's Country Store in North Clarendon, Vermont. When I asked him about the state's junior senator, Spafford immediately told me how much he hates socialism. "I think the only way for a society to work is for everybody to pull their own weight," he said pointedly. He went on, telling that he doesn't like Sanders' idea of free college, and thinks welfare abuse is a big problem in the US.

But then he added that recently, he's become convinced that corporate welfare is even worse. "If the corporations and the wealthy were taxed appropriately I would look at it as more jobs, more roads, better infrastructure, not more social programs," Spafford said. At least Sanders is honest, he added—honest about Wall Street and the corporate interests that run the country.

Spafford admits that sounds a little like a conspiracy theory, but says it also kind of rings true. He can barely bring himself to think about voting for a socialist for president, he said, but choosing for any of the other potential candidates seems just as bad in a different way. So for now, at least, he's glad Sanders is running.

"I like hearing him agitating and stirring the pot," he said, "Because Hillary Clinton has Hillary Clinton's best interests in mind and the best interests of the corporations supporting her."

"Bernie doesn't," he added. "What I like is that all the liars are going to be exposed and Bernie's going to keep exposing them right to the end."

Follow Livia Gershon on Twitter.

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