Bernie Sanders defends his democratic socialism in landmark speech

Presidential candidate argues that democratic socialism 'means that we must create an economy that works for all'

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has never shied away from the “socialist” label. But never before in his campaign has he dedicated an entire speech to embracing it.

Speaking to a crowd of Georgetown University students on Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., Sanders spent the better part of an hour explaining why he calls himself a democratic socialist and what the label means to him.

Sanders, a senator from Vermont and the current runner-up to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest, argued that his vision of democratic socialism is consistent with hallowed liberal values. Distancing himself from the “radical” label often applied to self-described socialists in the United States, Sanders instead placed himself in a left-wing American tradition that includes President Franklin Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” Sanders said. “Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt."

Remove the word “socialist” from the speech, and Sanders often sounded indistinguishable from other, non-socialist members of the Democratic Party’s left. His tough stance on Wall Street regulation echoed similar remarks made by Sen. Elizabeth Warren; his affiliation with the $15 minimum wage movement is now shared with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a figure frequently identified with the Democrats’ centrist bloc. It may be Sanders’s socialist principles that led him to argue "that if someone works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty" — but non-socialist President Barack Obama has used nearly identical language many times in the past.

While Sanders in his speech praised liberal achievements such as the New Deal and the creation of Medicare, he refrained from discussing any of U.S. history’s leading socialists — not even early 20th century labor leader and presidential candidate Eugene Victor Debs, someone he has often cited as a role model. At one point, Sanders even went out of his way to distance himself from socialists to his left by noting that he supports private ownership and enterprise.

“I don’t believe government should 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 fair deal,” Sanders said. “I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas."

But Sanders also said that all Americans are entitled to basic material comforts, including housing, food and health care. Again invoking Roosevelt and King, he argued that “true freedom does not occur without economic security."

“People are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are unemployed or underpaid, or when they are exhausted by working long hours,” Sanders said. “People are not truly free when they have no health care."

Although Sanders said these views are what make him a socialist, he also noted that he drew many of them from Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address, in which the president called for a “Second Bill of Rights” guaranteeing every American’s right to housing, employment, food and other economic provisions.

Sanders dedicated the final portion of his speech to a more detailed outline of his plan for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) than he has previously offered. He said the U.S. should work with Russia and partners in the Middle East to disrupt ISIL in Syria. While Sanders also said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should eventually be removed from power, he added that “our priority must be to defeat [ISIL]."

Saudi Arabia and other “powerful Muslim nations in the region can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect the United States to do their work for them,” said Sanders, who insisted that regional powers, rather than Washington, should lead the anti-ISIL campaign. 

Following the speech, Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant — a member of the Socialist Alternative Party and the second-most prominent elected socialist in the U.S. after Sanders — applauded Sanders for offering “a unique opportunity to spread socialist ideas to a new generation."

“Bernie Sanders is giving voice to the enormous desire for change after a decade of economic crisis where millions lost their jobs and homes, and the ‘recovery’ has overwhelmingly benefited the 1 percent,” Sawant said in a video response to the Sanders speech.

Sawant had previously expressed disappointment in Sanders’s decision to seek the Democratic nomination instead of running for president as a third-party socialist candidate. But in her response, she urged her supporters to work on behalf of his campaign.

Regarding Sanders’s Roosevelt tribute, Sawant noted that the New Deal president had originally campaigned as a fiscal conservative, and that he had to be nudged to the left through radical organizing.

“The workers’ movement that won the New Deal was led by socialists,” Sawant said.

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