Bernie Sanders is misunderstood.
The Democratic presidential candidate is a Democratic socialist, but his opponents keep calling him a regular socialist. Donald Trump keeps calling him a communist. And with those distinctions, most political pundits doubt Sanders could ever be elected president.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why Sanders wanted to double down on what Democratic socialism actually is, and what a Democratic socialist president would mean for a distinctly capitalist country. At a packed event at Georgetown University on Thursday, he attempted to do just that — explaining that his version of American democracy is still a democracy, but one that “can not be based just on the worship of money.”
“We need to develop a political movement which once again is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation,” he said. “In my view, the billionaire class must be told loudly and clearly that they cannot have it all, that our government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.”
Sanders insisted that, unlike a regular socialist, he does not want the government to run the entire economy — however, he does want significantly more government-funded programs that he believes will make life easier for the middle and working classes.
“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist — like tomorrow — remember this: I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production,” he said. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families of this country who produce the wealth of this county deserve a decent standard of living, and that their incomes should go up, not down.”
Along with lifting up the working class, however, Sanders said Democratic socialism also means actively making life harder for the very wealthy. He slammed the Republican-led concept of trickle-down economics, and said his policies would drive wealth by making it easier for a majority of Americans to reach into their own pocketbooks.
“I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally start paying the taxes they should,” he said. “I don’t believe in special treatment for the top 1 percent.”
Sanders used figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who implemented Social Security), Lyndon B. Johnson (who signed Medicare and Medicaid into law), and Pope Francis (who has framed economic justice in moral terms) to make his case. His ideology, he said, is the obvious next step after a long line of federal programs once decried as “socialist” by conservatives, but have since become “the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.”
Many voters long anticipated Thursday’s event. For the last month, Sanders had teased the idea of a speech dedicated to the topic of his ideology, but did not say when or where it would occur. Over an hour before Sanders was scheduled to speak, hundreds of Georgetown University students were lined up outside in the rain.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Sanders has touched on the specifics of his controversial political ideology before, but hasn’t been particularly extensive about it during the 2016 campaign. In the first Democratic debate, he explained the basic idea that a Democratic socialist finds it fundamentally wrong that “the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.” But he didn’t explain how that differs from a regular socialist, who would certainly feel the same. He went a little further after being criticized by Republicans during a GOP debate, citing the success of other socialist democracies like Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. But he didn’t explain the intricacies of how or why those governments work.
Because of this, the stakes of Thursday’s event were particularly high. Calling it “the most important speech of [Sanders’] bid for the Democratic presidential nomination,” the New York Times noted that many on the left are wary to “waste their votes” on an anti-establishment candidate — particularly one that uses the word “socialist” to describe his point of view.
So, did his speech change any minds?
Among students, the answer wasn’t clear — many, if not most, were already Bernie Sanders supporters. But Randall-Grace Johnson, a 17-year-old justice and peace studies major, said the explanation was certainly helpful.
“I definitely came out with a greater understanding of [Democratic socialism],” she told ThinkProgress.
Hannah Wingett, a 19-year-old linguists major, said she was unfamiliar with the term before being introduced to Sanders’ politics. But she said the substance of his ideas and proposed policies were more important to her than his ideological label.
“The media focuses on it a lot,” she said. “But Bernie Sanders’ supporters are listening to what he wants to do, more than the word ‘socialism.'”