While 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.”
An unimpeachable classic work in political philosophy, intellectual and cultural history, and economics, The Road to Serfdom has inspired and infuriated politicians, scholars, and general readers for half a century.