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What Exactly Is a Democratic Socialist? Bernie Sanders Offers His Take

The 74-year-old Vermont senator delivered a long-awaited speech at Georgetown University on Thursday to outline the policies underpinning the ideology that is driving his surprising presidential election campaign.

by Liz Fields
Nov 19 2015, 10:15pm

Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA

Bernie Sanders wants America to know that his brand of politics isn't your grandpa's or even your father's socialism.

The 74-year-old self-styled "democratic socialist" delivered a long-awaited speech at Georgetown University in Washington, DC on Thursday to outline the policies underpinning the ideology that is driving his surprising presidential election campaign.

"My view of democratic socialism builds on the success of many other countries around the world who have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of the working families, the elderly citizens, children, the sick, and poor," he told a crowd of mostly 20-something students. "Economic rights must be a central part of what America stands for.... This is not a radical idea, it is a conservative idea. It is an idea and practice that exists in every other major country on earth."

Throughout the nearly hour-long speech, Sanders repeatedly evoked Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he credited with implementing progressive policies and reviving concepts — including the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, job programs, and the abolition of child labor — that he noted were "defined as socialist" at the time.

"Real freedom must include economic security," Sanders said. "It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time that we did."

Related: 'We Will Not Be Tricked': Why Millennials Really Love Bernie Sanders

Sanders has focused his campaign on expanding America's social net and advocating for policies modeled on those of Scandinavian countries, such as 12 weeks of paid parental leave for workers, a single-payer healthcare system, growth of public employment and spending, and raising the minimum wage. His stump speech has also centered on the socialist ideals of shrinking income inequality by redistributing wealth accumulated by the elite "billionaire class" — for example, by providing free public college and university tuition financed by a "Robin Hood tax" on Wall Street transactions.

On Thursday, Sanders rehashed these policies and others in defining his vision of democratic socialism, and added others that were not yet in play in Roosevelt's time, including calls to combat global climate change and defeat the Islamic State.

Despite his stated support for socialist ideals, Sanders — an independent Vermont senator who caucuses with Democrats and is vying for the party's nomination — is seen as relatively moderate in his approach.

"Bernie comes from an independent, non-Democratic party tradition that has given him the latitude to self-describe as a socialist," said Richard Parker, an economist and public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "He is a very mild form of socialist by comparison to the history of socialism in Europe over the 20th Century."

"He does distinguish himself as a redistributionist," Parker added, "whereas socialism at one point was not solely about redistribution, but about public ownership of broad swathes of the economy — and there's nothing in his program that talks about that."

Earlier this month, Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen further confused the issue when he dismissed comparisons between socialism and Scandinavian economic and social systems.

"I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism," he said during a talk at Harvard University. "Therefore I would like to make one thing clear: Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy."

Sanders sought to clarify his own position on Thursday, pointing out that almost every developed country in the world has vastly better social programs than the US.

"Next time you hear me attacked as a socialist — like tomorrow," he said with a grin, "remember this: I don't believe government should take over the grocery shop down the street or own the means of production, but I do believe the middle class and working class of this country, who produce the wealth of this country, deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down."

Related: The Postal Workers Union Just Endorsed Bernie Sanders — and It's a Big Deal

Since declaring his candidacy for president, Sanders has been persistently attacked by the GOP and other critics over his enthusiasm for socialist principles. Some, like Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, have also purposefully mischaracterized Sanders as a communist.

In American political lingo, the words "socialist" and "communist" are often conflated, and neither are discussed in particularly flattering terms — particularly as they've been applied to President Barack Obama and his polarizing reform of healthcare.

Late last month, at a grassroots fundraiser for Sanders in New York, a group of young supporters said that they were encouraged by the candidate's rising star and impressive poll numbers. But many also acknowledged that his principles have been widely misunderstood, especially by an older generation for whom the terms "socialism" and "political revolution" hold very different connotations.

"The word 'revolution' scares my mother because she thinks of the Cold War, communism, Stalin," said Matthew Collura, a 24-year-old organizer for the grassroots group Millennials for Bernie. "Bernie scares our mothers' generation. It's not because they have reviewed his policies and think they're scary. It's because the word and the meanings in our society have connected it to dictatorships."

Sanders himself has long recognized the American public's hang-ups over the word "socialist," and even avoided it himself early in his career.

"I've stayed away from calling myself a socialist," Sanders told the Boston Globe shortly after he won the 1981 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont. "I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps."

But his soaring popularity a year out from the election reflects a thawing of the public's reservations, especially among the younger voters that make up the bulk of his support. The millennial base has particularly been active among grassroots activists and in helping Sanders edge ever closer to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

The former secretary of state is leading by roughly 52 percent to Sanders's 33 percent, according to a November 12 New York Times/CBS News survey.

On Thursday, Sanders indicated that his adoption of the democratic socialist label has helped to differentiate his campaign and ideals from the politics of his Democratic rivals.

"My vision is not just about making modest changes around the edges, it is about transforming American society," Sanders said during the forum's question-and-answer period. "It is imperative that we create a political revolution, that millions of people get involved in the political process, and that we create a government that works for all, not just the few."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields