Defining Bernie’s Democratic Socialism

Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism has always centered on improving the lives of working-class people and exposing how exploitation by the rich robs them of the opportunity to live dignified lives. Corporate Democrats who continue to ignore or undermine this agenda are putting themselves, the country, and the world in great peril.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders delivers a campaign update at the Hotel Vermont on March 11, 2020 in Burlington, Vermont. Scott Eisen / Getty

The Bernie Sanders campaign “crashed” the Democratic Party in 2016 by exposing the class interests that its leadership represented and expanding the horizon of political possibility in America. Against the neoliberal ideology that has shaped the Democratic Party for decades, Bernie’s 2020 campaign is continuing the fight for a coherent and principled agenda — guided by the needs of working-class people of all races, genders, nationalities, sexualities, and creeds — which Bernie has described as “democratic socialism.”

Democratic socialism,” in Sanders’s telling, is made up of a series of policy proposals to eradicate poverty, rebuild the working class, reinvest in public institutions, and achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth. Specific aspects of this framework include curbing corporate power through financial, labor, and environmental regulation; opposition to job-killing free trade agreements; and tax policy that favors working-class people, not corporations and the rich.

It includes policies aimed at addressing income and wealth inequality, like gender and racial pay equity, raising the minimum wage, and empowering labor unions — and expanding the social wage with universal health care and childcare, free public college, land trusts, full employment, and paid family leave. In addition to his longtime fight against climate change and for sustainable energy, Bernie has offered a comprehensive plan for reforming US immigration policy (correctly positioning criminal justice as both a class and civil rights issue) and called for an end to permanent war.

In 2016, Bernie’s political identity as a democratic socialist drew multiple story lines. Some leftists complained that he wasn’t “really a socialist” and chastised his supporters by alleging that he was “sheep-dogging” them into the dead end of the Democratic Party. Establishment liberals and conservatives openly red-baited him, while the National Review and other far-right news sources alluded to Stalin, the Gulag, and even the Yugo.

More nuanced assessments referenced anti-austerity, resistance to neoliberalism, and a clarion call for a new Keynesianism. The latter included Thomas Piketty’s essay in the Guardian, where he credited Bernie with having revived the United States’ “tradition of egalitarianism,” against the status quo agenda of Hillary Clinton, “just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.”

Early in the 2016 primary, the distinguished historian Eric Foner penned an open letter to Bernie in the Nation, lauding him for his emphasis on “the active involvement of the federal government” over market-driven policies, and beckoning him to replace his references to European social welfare with examples from “the rich heritage of American radicalism” — for example, FDR’s New Deal and Second Bill of Rights and A. Philip Randolph’s “A Freedom Budget for All Americans.”

A few weeks later, as if on cue, Bernie delivered his celebrated “democratic socialism” speech at Georgetown University with only brief mention of European systems, instead invoking FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society: “Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty, and restored their faith in government,” he said. “This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”

In his letter, Foner also drew parallels between Bernie’s politics and the morality underlying the socialism of Eugene Debs — highlighting their common ability to conjure collective outrage over the plain wrongness of social inequality in the United States and their conviction that everyday people could make profound social change through the exercise of political power: “It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.” Debs’s socialism was less about setting “a blueprint for a future society,” Foner explained, than about political leaders’ moral obligation “to rein in the excesses of capitalism . . . to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not.”

Prominent campaign surrogate Cornel West also defined Bernie’s program in moral terms, calling it “neo-populist” — which he described as the “principled use of the government to come to the rescue of working and poor people crushed by Wall Street greed and upper-middle-class indifference to the disappearing opportunities of vulnerable fellow citizens.”

Indeed, Bernie has been railing against social inequality and the undue power of the wealthy for many decades. In the mid-seventies, he called for the Rockefeller family fortune to be broken up and used to pay for government programs for the poor and elderly. His denunciations against “Wall Street greed” throughout the eighties and nineties included an impassioned floor speech against Reagan’s bailout of miscreant Savings & Loans in 1991 — in addition to frequent grillings of pharmaceutical giants and their bipartisan enablers in Congress.

Into the new millennium, Bernie famously called out Alan Greenspan at a 2003 House Committee on Financial Services hearing, where he told the Fed chairman, right to his face, that he was “way out of touch with the needs of middle-class and working families of our country” and was using his position “to represent the wealthy and large corporations.” And since the Citizens United decision in 2010, Bernie has turned a laser-like focus on “extremist,” “right-wing billionaires” like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson as part of an ongoing, high-profile counteroffensive against the far right’s war of ideas and the outsize influence of wealthy elites in US politics.

Despite Bernie’s long history in Congress, and as a member of Chuck Schumer’s leadership team, Democrats and Republicans continue to red-bait him for his political views. Bernie uses the phrase “political revolution” to signify the extent to which his program veers from the status quo — he has not called for an actual revolution, like those in Cuba and Bolivia, and does not associate himself with anticapitalist politics or seek to nationalize major industries as his critics allege. He has long advocated for increasing government regulation and corporate taxation and removing elements of the social system, like health care and higher education, from the market economy. And he has long promoted policies to revive public investment and social safety nets, in housing, poverty relief, and jobs and income policy — much like the industrial Keynesianism of the postwar era and Johnson’s Great Society, yet without the behemoth militarism and uneven “compromises” between capital and labor.

The significance of Bernie Sanders is not whether he is really a socialist, but that large portions of the electorate embrace him despite that taboo identity. As numerous polls indicated — both in 2016 and today — most Americans support a more even distribution of income and wealth, the expansion of programs like Social Security and Medicare, increasing the minimum wage, and getting big money out of politics.

Corporate Democrats pay lip service to these issues and “rebuilding the middle class,” but their candidates consistently present means-tested and overly bureaucratized policy platforms — like a public option for health care instead of universal health care — that intentionally maintain the status quo of corporate profiteering off necessary social institutions. That was evident at the start of the 2020 race, when Joe Biden assured rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” in their standard of living if he is elected president — which means that nothing would fundamentally change for poor and working-class people.

Bernie’s goal has always been to help improve the lives of working-class people and expose how exploitation by the rich and powerful was robbing them of the opportunity to live the good life. Against the status quo of social injustice, Bernie has called for fundamental change in how we understand our rights as citizens and as human beings, and he has connected the dots between the rise of Trumpism and the disenfranchisement of America’s poor and working class.

This relationship is crucial to understanding Trump’s appeal and the dynamics of the November election, and it is one that corporate Democrats continue to ignore at great peril to the nation. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr put it: “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”