Acton Institute Powerblog

What Kind of Socialist is Bernie Sanders?

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

bernie-sandersWhile many politicians tend to avoid the labels “liberal” or “progressive,” Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders proudly self-identifies as a “socialist.”

While at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth affiliate of the Socialist Party of America, and has remained a outspoken advocate for socialism ever since.

But exactly what kind of socialist is Sanders?

Faced with the prospect, albeit unlikely, that an avowed socialist may actually become the Democrat’s nominee for president, I thought it would be helpful for Americans to understand the particular brand of socialism advocated by Sanders.

My intention is to summarize his views in a way that is not only fair, but that Sanders himself would agree with. In order to do that I’ve attempted to use his own words as much as possible and to avoid directly stating what I find objectionable about his views (I’ll save that for another day).

Here’s what you should know about the socialism of Bernie Sanders:

Sanders is a Democratic Socialist — Sanders does not identify with the Marxist-Leninist wing of socialism (and no, he’s not a communist), but self-identifies as a “democratic socialist.” In Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey, Donald F. Busky explains the term this way:

Democratic socialism is the wing of the socialist movement that combines a belief in a socially owned economy with that of political democracy. Sometimes simply called socialism, more often than not, the adjective democratic is added by democratic socialists to distinguish themselves from Communists who also call themselves socialists…democratic socialists wish to emphasize by their name that they disagree strongly with the Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism.

Sanders advocates for an American style of socialism — Although Sanders frequently points to Nordic countries when explaining how socialism can work, his desire is to expand and continue the American style of socialism advocated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whether FDR should be considered a socialist is debatable, but Sanders seems to think he was—at least to some extent—and finds it commendable).

Sanders identifies FDR’s 1944 State of the Union speech as “one of the one of the most important speeches ever made by a president.” In that speech, FDR outlined what he called a “second Bill of Rights”:

We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

* The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

* The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

* The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

* The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

* The right of every family to a decent home;

* The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

* The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

* The right to a good education.

This is the foundational basis for Sanders’s political views and policy objectives: “So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.”

Sanders is also something of a economic nativist, opposing most forms of globalization, including free trade and offshore production. Last September he wrote on Twitter: “I’ve got a message for corporate America: if you want us to buy your products, you better start producing them here in the United States.”

Sanders believes in social ownership of economic profits — A common misunderstanding is that all socialists advocate for the state to own the means of economic production. In the twentieth century, nationalization of industries was certainly a common feature of socialism (such as in the Soviet Union). But that is not what Sanders is advocating (at least not on a broad national scale). As he has explained,

I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down. I do believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America, companies that create jobs here, rather than companies that are shutting down in America and increasing their profits by exploiting low-wage labor abroad.

While Sanders proposes to provide government assistance to “workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives,” he appears to mostly believe the best approach to social ownership is for government to regulate and redistribute economic profits both to workers and to society in a way that he deems to be “fair.”

Sanders advocates for a variety of single-payer systems paid for by the government — While Sanders does not necessarily want the government to own the means of production, he does want the government to control the mean of paying for certain aspects of life, such as healthcare and education. For example, he advocates for a “Medicare-for-all single payer health care system” and “the right to go to a public colleges or university tuition free” (and by “free” he means “paid for by the taxpayers”).

Sanders believes in regulation and redistribution to achieve economic “fairness” — While allowing businesses to be privately owned, Sanders brand of socialism advocates the use of government regulation and mandatory wealth redistribution to achieve economic equity in society. On the regulation side, this would include determining the minimum level of worker’s pay and benefits (i.e., $15 a hour and mandatory family leave) as well as limits on how much profits companies can earn (“Democratic socialism means that we have government policy which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry…”). Additionally, Sanders proposes increasing taxes, both on individual and on corporations, so that the government has more money for the purposes of redistribution (e.g., he proposes a top rate on individual income of 52 percent).

Sanders wants to put (by force if necessary) the “democratic” in Democratic Socialism — “Democratic socialism, to me, does not just mean that we must create a nation of economic and social justice,” says Sanders, “It also means that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” To achieve this goal he would put restrictions on free speech related to elections (e.g., by overturning Citizens United), have publicly funded elections, and “demand that everyone 18 years of age is registered to vote – end of discussion.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Gregory Moohn

    Thank you sir for putting a human and realistic face on identifying correctly the impetus of Sanders form of socialism (socialism). We need more journalist that write like yourself so more people will have the knowledge to make a informed decision come election time. Again, thank you for providing what I call a needed public service.

  • Nice survey of Sanders’ ideas. But he offers nothing new. His flavor of socialism is exactly what Bismarck implemented in Germany in the last quarter of the 19th century. And it’s good that he fingers FDR as a socialist. FDR worshiped Mussolini’s fascism, one form of socialism, and remade the US in his image. Fascism allows markets, but highly regulated by cartels of the major corporations, much like the US today.

    Sanders’ socialism is not that different from the system Lenin settled on. After the disasters of communism, Lenin invented what he called “market socialism” in which the state allows a small space for markets while the state regulates every aspect.

    But if you look at what Sanders wants, he already has 90% of it in the US. That highlights how socialist we already are. Of course, he neglects to tell people that the northern Euro countries he admires have been backpedaling greatly on their socialism as their economies have stagnated. Denmark, for example, has reduced corp taxes to zero. I would vote for Bernie if he advocated that socialist policy.

  • Janet Re Johnson

    If elected, he wouldn’t be able to implement these ideas. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be elected; he should be, because he could make a start. And we sure do need a start.

    • mike

      I agree with Janet . If I understand her correctly, we absolutely have to start somewhere to bring about equality and justice to all. the unregulated free market system is obsolete leaving in its wake misery and despair.

    • bartleyc

      Since you’re so much into communist, you should move to communist Cuba, I’ll bet you would be real happy there. And if you like antique Cars from the 1950, they loads of them there, in fact that’s about all they have. Take burnie Sanders with you, and show him how well communist works.

  • Anonymous Patriot

    He has no reason to hide his socialism now. Decades of churning out useless idiots from the school system and massive indoctrination in the universities means a society teaming with adult children who never learned to think for themselves and have been sold the fairy tale of rainbows and unicorns plopping out of socialism. They’ve never taken a civics class or even seen anything from an economics book let alone had any real education in the lessons of history’s past mistakes.

    Children today think the Civil War was only about slavery, and that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor because they were Nazi’s (and didn’t have anything to do with the US cutting off and embargoing their oil imports) as ridiculous as that is. No one told them that Saddam Hussein was hoisted to power in Iraq by the US because we didn’t like the existing government (nevermind the Baath party’s Nazi history). They certainly don’t seem to know that Osama bin Laden was trained, armed, and created by the United States in the 80s to annoy Russia. Much like we are training, arming, and creating the next Bin Laden in Syria right now….oddly…again…to fight the Russians. You seriously can not get a better example of sticking a fork in a light socket and then when you wake up with smoke coming out of your ears reaching for the fork to try again.

    Bottomline, the fascist liberals no longer need to lie and hide in the shadows as they have the past several decades. They are free to come out in the open and proclaim their evil deeds because they have succeeded in cultivating a crop of mindless drones.

    Sanders is walking down the street naked in his socialist glory, and the clueless masses are all marveling at his splendid new clothes……………

    • Mitch

      “Bottomline, the fascist liberals no longer need to lie and hide in the shadows as they have the past several decades.”

      Anonymous Patriot

      Talk about a double standard.

    • Yes It Isn’t

      Denmark stagnated because of the housing crisis. The whole world did. You also just gave history lessons on things completely unrelated to socialism and didn’t give any reason as to why we should be against it. Nice fact checking.

  • mdy616

    How can Sanders ever take the oath of office? He would have to swear to uphold the Constitution and socialism and the constitution do not go hand-in-hand.

  • Dorrie

    Adolph Hitler was a Socialist … I guess some folks think being a Nazi is just terrific…