Defining Moment

Sanders Casts Democratic Socialism in American Terms

The independent, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, echoes President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a “second Bill of Rights” as he addresses concerns about his electability.

What Democratic Socialism Means to Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders outlined his vision Thursday for bringing democratic socialism to America, linking it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s belief that “real freedom must include economic security.” 

A self-described democratic socialist now seeking the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party, Sanders used the speech at Georgetown University in Washington to argue that the legacy of that ideology lies at the center of American history, beginning with Roosevelt’s “second Bill of Rights.”

“Everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea he introduced, was called socialist,” the Vermont senator said of ideas including Social Security, the right to collective bargaining, and federal deposit insurance. 

Sanders comments come just months after Gallup found that less than half of Americans would be willing to vote for a socialist for president, fewer than would vote for an atheist, a gay or lesbian candidate, or a Jew. Much in the same way that presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Mitt Romney both delivered speeches about their respective religions to try and assure a skeptical electorate, Sanders tailored his remarks on socialism so as to emphasize the commonality that the philosophy had with American political history. 

Many in the audience of approximately 450 supporters nodded as Sanders linked the ideology to Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union speech, in which he called for a “second Bill of Rights,” as well as President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, which included Medicare and Medicaid, and the economic visions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Francis.

While Sanders has struck a chord with the left wing of the Democratic Party, and he is widely viewed as having pulled front-runner Hillary Clinton's campaign in that direction, he continues to trail in national polls, in part, because many view his politics as too far out of the mainstream to have a chance of prevailing in the general election. 

But Sanders remained unapologetic, arguing that democratic socialism means “that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”

“That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago,” he told the crowd. “It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved, and it is time that we did.”

Sanders rejected the notion that “government should take over, you know, the grocery store down the street or own the means of production”—what many experts would call communism. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families of this country who produce the wealth of this country deserve a decent standard of living.”

The Vermont senator did not break new policy ground Thursday, instead reiterating his support for debt-free college tuition, paid family lead, universal, single-payer healthcare, and overturning Citizens United.

While Sanders acknowledged that many Americans "aren’t comfortable" with "the word socialist," his aim was to create "a much more vibrant democracy and an economy that works much much better for working families."

Just as they had done when Sanders entered the chapel-like auditorium, those in attendance gave the Vermont senator's version of democratic socialism, and the man delivering it, a standing ovation.  

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