When Senator Bernie Sanders declared his long-shot presidential run last week, he became the most high-profile candidate to describe himself as a socialist since Norman Thomas made six consecutive bids starting in 1928.
The Vermont independent—who is pursuing the Democratic nomination and calls himself a “democratic socialist”—was described by two American socialist organizations as the strongest socialist candidate in high public office to carry the torch.
“I think he can advance the socialist movement,” said Socialist Party USA Co-Chair Mimi Soltysik, even as he called Sanders “a different sort of creature” than a true socialist, criticizing his vote for Obamacare (because it relies too much on private insurers), his support for Israel (due to its treatment of Palestinians), and the fact that he's running for the nomination of a “capitalist party” (they refuse on principle to work with or support Democrats).
He said Sanders is far stronger than the possible alternatives—including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of mainstream progressives who isn't running, as well as President Barack Obama and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, whom Soltysik dubbed “capitalist corporate politicians.”
The Democratic Socialists of America, an advocacy group that differs tactically from the Socialist Party USA in that it supports candidates within the two-party system, has endorsed Sanders.
“We do think he's the best candidate out there,” said Maria Svart, DSA's national director. “He's the only person in Congress who is willing to point out the problems with capitalism. ... And he's not afraid of the word 'socialist.'”
Both groups—which have little national influence and scant presence in federal or local public office—love the fact that Sanders embraces the label “socialist,” which is usually deployed as a slur in American politics.
“I think having that word in the discourse—it can help sort of stimulate a positive response, as the stigma wears off,” Soltysik said. “So let's say hypothetically that Bernie Sanders doesn't defeat Hillary Clinton in the primary. We'll still have a lot more people who know what [the word socialism] means. That's a positive.”
But why does the Socialist Party say Sanders isn't a real socialist? Soltysik says democratic socialists believe in “community control of institutions,” rather than private control; “local control of the means of production”; and a socialized medical program.
“And we're anti-capitalist,” he said. “We don't see capitalism as a reformable institution.”
Sanders has steered clear of the more radical components of democratic socialism. He has instead developed a keen eye for political reality since he was first elected to Congress in 1990, and made a name for himself by fighting for ideas now popular with mainstream progressives, like taxing the rich, regulating Wall Street, and bridging income inequality.
Appearing Sunday on ABC's This Week, Sanders stood by the “democratic socialist” label and said the U.S. should learn from Scandinavian countries, arguing that they have better health care, education, and child-care systems. “And in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class,” the senator said.
Speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire, over the weekend, Sanders said he'd be willing to register as a Democrat if it was necessary to compete in all 50 states in the primary, according to the Washington Post.