San­ders the so­cial­ist em­braces his mo­ment

Good pol­i­tics, great tim­ing spark can­di­date’s rise


des moines — When Sen. Bernie San­ders came to speak in Iowa a few months ago, Drake Univer­sity stu­dent Ian Miller snagged a seat on the stage. It was a close-up look at a his­toric cam­paign: Af­ter decades where so­cial­ists were the en­emy, a “demo­cratic so­cial­ist” had come to town as a se­ri­ous can­di­date for pres­i­dent. What a mo­ment, right? Right? “Re­mind me what a so­cial­ist is?” Miller said last week.

A friend, Nik Was­son, tried to ex­plain: “A so­cial­ist is some­one who be­lieves the gov­ern­ment needs to be in­volved in a lot of as­pects of the econ­omy, and so­cial is­sues as well.”

“Okay,” said Miller, who was born in 1995. “Well, know­ing what ‘demo­cratic’ means — and now, know­ing again what ‘so­cial­ist’ means ,” he ap­proved of the com­bi­na­tion .“[ San­ders] might want to see gov­ern­ment have a heav­ier hand in cer­tain poli­cies,” he said, but “he wants ev­ery­one to have a say in it.”

San­ders’s re­mark­able suc­cess this year — in spite of his la­bel as a so­cial­ist — is due to a mix of good pol­i­tics and great tim­ing.

Twenty-four years af­ter the end of the Cold War, many Amer­i­cans no longer as­so­ciate so­cial­ism with fear or mis­siles — or with fail­ure, food lines or empty Soviet su­per­mar­kets. A word that their elders saw as a slur had be­come a blank, open for San­ders to de­fine.

And this year, San­ders (I-Vt.) has tried to de­fine it with an eye to­ward a mod­er­ate au­di­ence.

He has called for huge growth in gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion and spend­ing. But he has stayed away from clas­sic so­cial­ist ideas, like gov­ern­ment takeovers of pri­vate industry. And, in his speeches, San­ders has talked about so­cial­ism in mod­est, solidly Amer­i­can terms: It’s noth­ing more than the pur­suit of fair­ness in a coun­try now rigged by the rich.

So far, it’s worked — but San­ders still hasn’t had to face an op­po­nent de­ter­mined to use so­cial­ism against him.

“What demo­cratic so­cial­ism means tome ,” San­ders said dur­ing a re­cent speech in New Hamp­shire, “is hav­ing a gov­ern­ment which rep­re­sents all peo­ple, rather than just the wealth­i­est peo­ple, which is most of­ten the case right now in this coun­try.”

Un­til re­cently, the word “so­cial­ist” oc­cu­pied a spe­cial place in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: Along with “li ar” and“hyp­ocrite ,” it was ar are in­sult so low-down that it couldn’t even be used on con­gress­men.

In 2011, for ex­am­ple, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks (R) spoke the word on the House floor in 2011 — re­fer­ring to Democrats as “so­cial­ist mem­bers.” There was a for­mal com­plaint, and Brooks re­tracted the word. In the Con­gres­sional Record, it was re­placed by as­ter­isks. “The *.*.* mem­bers of this body choose to spend money that we do not have,” Brooks said, of­fi­cially.

Even now, so­cial­ists seem to be one of the most dis­trusted groups in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. In June, Gallup asked vot­ers if they could vote for a so­cial­ist for pres­i­dent — if that so­cial­ist hap­pened to be their own party’s nom­i­nee. Fifty per­cent said no. Gallup asked the same ques­tion about 10 other groups — Jews, Mus­lims, Mor­mons, evan­gel­i­cals, gays, athe­ists and oth­ers — and so­cial­ists scored the worst.

Still, for San­ders, this has proven to be a ripe mo­ment. One the­ory holds that Pres­i­dent Obama may have helped pave the way.

“The pub­lic bat­tle over Obama’s so­cial­ism has prob­a­bly left a lot of his mil­len­nial sup­port­ers in­clined to em­brace the term on the the­ory that if Obama’s foes don’t like so­cial­ism, there must be some­thing good about it,” said Stan­ley Kurtz, a con­ser­va­tive scholar whose book “Rad­i­cal-in-Chief ” ar­gued that the pres­i­dent’s ide­ol­ogy had been in­formed by hard-left the­o­rists.

San­ders doesn’t talk much about hard-left the­o­ries. He of­ten tack­les ques­tions about so­cial­ism with a joke — which is only funny be­cause times have ac­tu­ally changed.

“Does any­one here think I’m a strong ad­her­ent of the North Korean form of gov­ern­ment? That I want all of you to be wear­ing sim­i­lar-col­ored pa­ja­mas?” he says. The joke as­sumes that San­ders’s au­di­ences no longer see old­style, Soviet so­cial­ism as a threat but as a weird for­eign cu­rios­ity.

In­deed, some of them aren’t even that cu­ri­ous about it.

“Bernie is the one,” said Levi Vi­vanh, a fresh­man at Drake who’d seen an­other San­ders speech. “He gets to the point of what peo­ple want. He’s right about tu­ition costs.”

But Vi­vanh wasn’t sure what San­ders meant when he talked about his broader ide­ol­ogy. “Demo­cratic so­cial­ist . . . I don’t re­ally know what that means,” Vi­vanh said. “It sounds like he’s more fo­cused on so­ci­ety. Is that what it means?”

San­ders has been in elected of­fice for 34 years now. For that en­tire time, he has been ar­gu­ing with peo­ple about whether the word “so­cial­ist” ap­plies to him — and what he thinks so­cial­ism ac­tu­ally means.

In 1981, when San­ders ran for mayor of Burling­ton as a far-left in­de­pen­dent, he was tagged as a so­cial­ist by his en­e­mies. San­ders em­braced the term, said his long­time friend Stan­ley “Huck” Gut­man, partly as a way of show­ing his dis­like for the two main­stream par­ties.

“The Demo­cratic Party has too of­ten been com­plicit in not serv­ing the peo­ple who vote for the Demo­cratic Party. I think the Demo­cratic Party pays too much at­ten­tion to Wall Street,” said Gut­man, a po­etry pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont who has also worked as San­ders’s chief of staff in Congress. “I know Bernie cer­tainly thinks so.”

As mayor, San­ders gave his small city a “for­eign pol­icy,” and it was de­cid­edly left­ist. He vis­ited Nicaragua to meet San­din­ista lead­ers. He spent his hon­ey­moon on a good­will trip to Burling­ton’s sis­ter city in the Soviet Union.

He was elected to Congress, in 1990, and seemed to rel­ish his role as a skunk at the two par­ties’ pic­nic.

“What do you think of so­cial­ism?” San­ders asked passersby out­side the Capi­tol on his first day, ac­cord­ing to a story in the Bos­ton Globe. “What hap­pens if we were in France? Does that panic you? Would you be afraid to go to France?”

But in the years since, San­ders has blurred the lines be­tween him­self and Democrats. First he joined their cau­cus in Congress. Now he’s run­ning for pres­i­dent in their pri­mary. And, when he talks about what a “demo­cratic so­cial­ist” is, he does not em­pha­size that old op­po­si­tion to the two-party sys­tem.

In this cam­paign, in fact, some ob­servers be­lieve that San­ders is even wrong to call him­self a “demo­cratic so­cial­ist.”

That’s be­cause there are of­fi­cial Demo­cratic So­cial­ists — both in other coun­tries and in the United States — and they gen­er­ally want some­thing more ag­gres­sive than he does. The Demo­cratic So­cial­ists in the United States want a sys­tem where work­ers or the gov­ern­ment own fac­to­ries and other means of pro­duc­tion. (This is dif­fer­ent from a com­mu­nist sys­tem, in which the gov­ern­ment owns every­thing in the peo­ple’s name.)

San­ders doesn’t want that. In­stead, what he wants is to take ex­ist­ing fed­eral pro­grams—many es­tab­lished by Democrats such as Franklin D. Roo­sevelt or Lyn­don B. John­son — and su­per-size them.

Right now, for in­stance, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­vides health in­sur­ance to se­niors: Medi­care. San­ders wants the gov­ern­ment to start pro­vid­ing it to ev­ery­body, a na­tional sin­gle-payer sys­tem that might cost some­thing like $15 tril­lion.

For an­other cur­rent ex­am­ple, gov­ern­ment — fed­eral, state and lo­cal — pays for pub­lic school for ev­ery child who wants it. San­ders wants to ex­pand that to both younger and older stu­dents. He would make preschool uni­ver­sal and make pub­lic col­lege tu­ition­free. In the process, he’d be giv­ing Wash­ing­ton un­prece­dented new lev­els of con­trol over th­ese sec­tors.

“He’s not a demo­cratic so­cial­ist,” said Wil­liam Galston, an ex­pert on do­mes­tic pol­i­tics at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “He’s a so­cial demo­crat. Se­ri­ously.”

So­cial Democrats, a sep­a­rate en­tity in the field guide to left­ists, are gen­er­ally more mod­er­ate. By those def­i­ni­tions, then, San­ders is ac­tu­ally mak­ing his own life harder, by mis­la­bel­ing him­self.

Still, so­cial­ism is the la­bel he’s stuck with. San­ders’s friends worry about what’s com­ing: fu­ture at­tack ads aimed at that 50 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who wouldn’t vote for a so­cial­ist at all.

So far, the tough­est thing he’s faced was a mild re­join­der from Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton at the first Demo­cratic de­bate.

“We are not Den­mark. I love Den­mark. We are the United States of Amer­ica,” Clin­ton said, af­ter San­ders cited Den­mark as an ex­am­ple of demo­cratic so­cial­ism in ac­tion.

She didn’t even use the s-word. Yet.


Bernie San­ders, then mayor of Burling­ton, Vt., sings dur­ing a record­ing ses­sion in 1987. The long­time “demo­cratic so­cial­ist,” who is seek­ing the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent, has tried to de­fine the la­bel with an eye to­ward a mod­er­ate au­di­ence on the cam­paign trail.

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