Robert F. Bukaty/AP

A socialist? Fine by me, Sanders supporters say

The Vermont senator's candidacy could serve to remove some of the toxicity from the term and political philosophy

ARLINGTON, Va. — The venue was a progressive policy forum in a packed conference room in Northern Virginia, far different from the kind of rallies drawing thousands of supporters that have helped propel Bernie Sanders’s upstart campaign for president.

But Sanders, the Democratic challenger to front-runner Hillary Clinton, was nevertheless on a tear. In the kind of fiery, policy-heavy speech that he has given for decades, Sanders laid out an agenda that gives the government a central role in promoting economic and social equality: a $15 an hour minimum wage, four years of tuition-free public college, higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy and on Wall Street transactions and a single-payer Medicare-for-all health system.

But is it socialism? Bernie Sanders, who since the beginning of this political career has called himself a “democratic socialist,” hasn’t disavowed or shied away from the term even under the hot glare of the presidential campaign spotlight.

“Do they think I’m afraid of the word?” he said in an interview with The Nation, praising the democratic socialist countries of Scandinavia. “I’m not afraid of the word.”

Neither, it seems, do Sanders supporters who have contributed to his recent surge in national polls and allowed him to become a thorn in the side of the Clinton campaign.

“I think it’s ridiculous and kind of humorous that socialism is somehow a derogatory term that’s loaded on people,” said Betsey Beyler, 67, who attended the policy forum and counts herself a fan. “What bothers me that label is pasted on people — politicians or others — to denigrate their work. It’s not necessarily even socialism, it’s just what’s doing right for people.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been gaining in the polls.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

Some say even if Sanders does not ultimately win the Democratic nomination, his candidacy has served a critical purpose: removing the toxicity from the socialist label in America, and in so doing, giving a boost to a once untouchable political philosophy and movement.  

Maria Svart, national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, a political advocacy group that supports Sanders, said the Senator’s embrace of democratic socialism — a term that raises few eyebrows elsewhere in the world — is a positive development for both the cause and the nation. 

“The right wing in this country and many people in the Democratic party who are neoliberals are willing to use that word to discredit anyone who stands up for ordinary people,” she said. “The fact that he’s not afraid of it and he talks about what it really means is really critical for changing our political discourse.”

Svart said that her organization has seen increased interest since Sanders announced his candidacy.

Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown and co-editor of the socialist magazine Dissent, meanwhile said some liberal Democrats’ willingness to enthusiastically support a socialist represents a longer evolution in political thought in the United States.  

“Since the end of the Cold War when America’s foes were called socialist, the word has become less toxic. And the financial crisis and the fact that people are thinking about capitalism as a flawed system has made people think that maybe there’s a better alternative,” Kazin said.

A Gallup poll released in late June found that 47 percent of Americans would be willing to vote for a socialist for president if their party nominated a well-qualified one. Although the survey found a greater share of the electorate would be willing to vote for a woman, a Catholic or a gay or lesbian candidate under the same circumstances, some have argued a higher percentage are generally supportive of socialist policies, even if they are squeamish about the use of the terminology.

Kazin noted that Sanders followed the mold of perhaps a gentler brand of socialism than the philosophy’s earliest associations with revolutionary regimes.

“He’s a socialist in much the same way as those who call themselves socialists in Western and Central Europe,” Kazin said. “He’s not calling for a revolution. He’s not calling for workers to take over the state. What he’s calling for is a more caring society and a larger role of the state in the economy and really much more regulated capitalism. That’s what democratic socialism has come to mean.”  

‘I think it’s ridiculous and kind of humorous that socialism is somehow a derogatory term that’s loaded on people.’

Betsey Beyler

policy forum attendee

Richard Wolff, an American Marxist economist and professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said Sanders’ popularity represents an inflection point for the country as more people reject what he views as the decaying system of capitalism pushed by both establishment Democrats and Republicans.

“People want a political change. They don’t want austerity. They don’t want income inequality that capitalism’s relocation is imposing on them every day,” he said. “The label ‘socialist’ for Mr. Sanders is not a problem, if you understand his positions … Wow, is he proving that the old politics and the old rules governing those politics are no longer valid.”

Still, political analysts give Sanders long odds of ultimately capturing the nomination and warn that the socialist brand might have limited appeal beyond the liberal enclaves and Sanders devotees who were already open to the idea.

“I think Bernie is too liberal to gather enough votes in this country to become president,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat and Clinton endorser, said in a late June interview.

“The [Sanders] surge is real — there’s no question about it. It shows up in a lot of polls, and you see it on the ground with his crowds, and he will have an impact on the race. He will most likely pull Hillary Clinton to the left, but there’s no way he’s going to win the Democratic nomination,” said David Yepsen, a longtime former political reporter at the Des Moines Register and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “She’s going to win the Democratic nomination, but the question is will he so damage her that it will hurt her chances in November.”

Kazin too endorsed that prognosis.

“For Bernie Sanders to get the nomination or to get elected president, we’d have to be a very different country,” he said. “And we haven’t changed that much.” 

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