Bernie Sanders
Credit: Alex Hanson/Flickr

On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders gave a speech at George Washington University outlining his vision of democratic socialism. For Sanders, democratic socialism in America isn’t something that has to be created from nothing. Rather, it is about taking up the “unfinished business of the New Deal.” Framing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as a socialist project struck actual doctrinaire socialists as an unfortunate, though not unforgivable, blurring of distinctions. (If socialists are good at anything, it’s pointing out differences and identifying enemies—which is something the rest of the left, and one presidential candidate in particular, would be better for doing, too.) The New Deal laid the foundation for American social democracy: a capitalist economy with strong regulations and social benefits like education, health care, and pensions. Democratic socialism, in contrast, is centered on replacing a capitalist economy with a socialist one, in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the people who produce goods (i.e. workers). There is a significant difference between that and the social democratic New Deal. There’s no reason to believe (unless you’re a doctrinaire socialist) that social democracy would lead to socialism (see Europe, or post-World War II America).

Social democrats, in other words, believe capitalism can and should be regulated, reformed, and adjusted. Democratic socialists believe capitalism must be demolished. Nowhere in his speech does Sanders call for capitalism’s demolition. Indeed, I’m unaware of any time when Sanders has done so. Yet, he insists on describing himself, and his vision, as socialism. It is not yet clear if this is a tactical mistake or not. Some on the left, like the economist Joseph Stiglitz, have argued that the words “socialist” and “socialism” have, after decades of propaganda and caricaturizing, lost any discernible meaning to Americans and should be discarded by politicians on the left in favor of terms like “progressive capitalism.”

But the very people who have done the propagandizing and the caricaturing have lost their chance to have any authority with a significant—and growing—portion of Americans. As has been regularly pointed out, more Americans, especially younger ones, have “favorable” views of “socialism” than in recent memory. At the same time, the vast majority of Americans, whether they “oppose” or “support” it, can’t cogently define socialism. This is not the result, as conservative pundits never tire saying, of indoctrination by commies in the schools. (If indoctrination were happening, you’d better believe that more Americans would, at the very least, give a precise definition of socialism on cue.) No, this phenomenon is exactly what you’d expect when the people who loudly proclaim themselves to be proud “capitalists” (i.e. Republicans and conservative media pundits) are the same people who like tax cuts that favor the wealthy, decry any and all forms of regulation and a social safety net as “Socialism!”, shrug at massive inequality and stagnant wages, and make common cause with bigots and religious zealots. If that is “capitalism,” then “socialism” (which to most people just means “not capitalism”) sounds pretty damned good.

Sanders is riding this wave of discontent in an attempt to reclaim “socialism” and re-imbue it with ethics and morality. Far from “tainting” the Democratic Party with socialism, Sanders is actually creating the space for other Democrats to broaden the spectrum of Democratic non-socialist politics. Since at least 1992, the Democratic Party has confined itself to a narrow band of economic policy that, by and large, accepted the premises of Reaganomics. The “center” of American economic policy has been firmly on the right. “Liberal” became a dirty word, and Democrats have been—and many still are—afraid of being perceived as “too liberal.” (Meanwhile, no Republican ever worried about being labelled “too conservative.”) This squeamishness only invited further bullying by the Right, which became content to tar even mild reform ideas as “socialistic.”

This is, of course, one of the oldest gambits in politics; the right has historically used “socialism”—and relied on people’s ignorance of it—as a scare-tactic. Sanders spent a significant amount of time in his speech directly confronting this history:

“I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur. … Let us remember that in 1932, Republican President Herbert Hoover claimed that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was, “a disguise for the totalitarian state.” In 1936 former Democratic New York Governor and presidential candidate Al Smith said in a speech about FDR’s New Deal policies, “Just get the platform of the Democratic Party and get the platform of the Socialist Party and lay them down on your dining-room table, side by side.” When President Harry Truman proposed a national health care program, the American Medical Association hired Ronald Reagan as their pitchman. The AMA called the legislation that stemmed from his proposal “socialized medicine” claiming that White House staff were, “followers of the Moscow party line.” In 1960, Ronald Reagan in a letter to Richard Nixon wrote the following about John F. Kennedy: “Under the tousled boyish haircut is still old Karl Marx.” In the 1990s, then Congressman Newt Gingrich claimed President Bill Clinton’s health care plan was “centralized bureaucratic socialism.” The conservative Heritage Foundation has claimed that the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was “a step towards socialism.”

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner claimed the stimulus package, the omnibus spending bill and the budget proposed by President Barack Obama were “all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”

But there’s a difference between how Sanders is fighting back and how his (and my) favorite American socialist, Eugene Debs, fought around 120 years ago:

“Of course, Socialism is violently denounced by the capitalist press … but this only confirms the view that the advance of Socialism is very properly recognized by the capitalist class as the one cloud upon the horizon which portends an end to the system in which they have waxed fat, insolent and despotic through the exploitation of their countless wage-working slaves.”

Now that is a socialist talking. Debs sharply describes a conflict between socialists and capitalists, and explicitly says socialists will end capitalism. Sanders comes nowhere close to saying anything like this. He isn’t fighting the right’s wanton blurring of socialism’s meaning. Indeed, he’s actively participating in blurring the public’s understanding of it. He’s basically saying, “Call me a socialist and anything you want ‘socialism.’” And he hurls socialism right back at the Right, which I have a hard time imagining Debs doing:

“Now let’s be clear: while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires … and that is the difference between Donald Trump and me. He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful.”

Sanders is commandeering the right’s “socialism!” propaganda and purposefully driving it off the logical cliff’s edge. Everybody, he’s saying, is actually at least a little bit of a socialist; it’s just the right that’s cynically hypocritical about it. Sanders’s gambit might accomplish two things, and one of them is unintentionally ironic. The first is that it could neutralize an effective scare-tactic for the right, which could open up space for other progressive candidates to put forward bold ideas without fear of being tarred. The second is that Sanders might be making the  implementation of actual socialism in America less likely (not that it was even remotely likely to begin with). If “socialism” becomes an anodyne label that applies to anything ranging from universal health care to government investment in private enterprises, then what words are left for those who actually want to dismantle capitalism? Sanders might actually be accomplishing a conservative project while also broadening the spectrum of “acceptable” political ideas.

One candidate in particular stands most to gain if Sanders is successful. In fact, she might be already: Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator shares many of the same goals as Sanders, and is just as unequivocal about her convictions and vision. Sanders’s unofficial campaign slogan, “No middle ground,” could just as easily be Warren’s. (In fact, I hope her campaign co-opts it, because its current slogan, “Persist,” is as insipid as Warren is not.) Even more, she has better political skills; she near single-handedly created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—Sanders has no equivalent accomplishments despite having a significantly longer career in national politics. She is also more rigorous, and has a plan for everything. But unlike Sanders, perhaps because of him, she does not concern herself with ideological labels. In part, it’s because she is definitively not a socialist. “I believe in markets,” she recently told Vox. “I believe in the benefits that come from markets, that two people coming together, or two companies, or a company and a person coming together to exchange goods and services … that’s how we build a lot of wealth in this country and a lot of innovation and create a lot of opportunity.”

But don’t be mistaken, Warren is determined to remake American politics and society. She will not cave to the “centrists” in her own party. If we’re lucky enough to have her as president, and if we give her the congressional majorities she would need to implement her plans, we may have Sanders to thank.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at