Bernie Sanders has been talking about democratic socialism for decades, as a mayor, a member of the US House, and a member of the US Senate. But now that he is a serious contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and now that more and more elected officials and activists are identifying as democratic socialists, President Trump and his Republican allies are attacking socialism as a threat to “liberty and independence.” On Wednesday, with a major address at George Washington University, Sanders is pushing back. He’ll explain that his vision of democratic socialism extends from the themes outlined in the 1944 State of the Union address, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Arguing that the United States must finally recognize that “economic rights are human rights,” Sanders plans to outline a vision of democratic socialism as an alternative to a system that is organized to benefit a handful of oligarchs—including Donald Trump—rather than the great mass of Americans.
Sanders explained why it is important to discuss democratic socialism as the 2020 race fires up, in a conversation with The Nation’s John Nichols, who has written about the senator and democratic socialism is a number of books, including The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism (Verso).
Bernie Sanders: Let’s talk about democratic socialism.
John Nichols: Where do you want to start?
Sanders: OK, look, the bottom line is that, in 1944, in a not-much-remembered State of the Union speech, what Franklin Roosevelt talked about essentially is that we have a Bill of Rights in our Constitution that protects our political rights: our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, etc. All of that is enormously important if we are going to protect freedom in America from tyranny. But what Roosevelt also said in that speech, which was very significant and very profound, was this: We’ve got political rights, but we don’t have economic rights.
Now I’m paraphrasing a little bit—and this is a point that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made very often as well—but the point Roosevelt was making was that it’s great that you have political rights, but what does that matter if you can’t afford to go to the doctor when you’re sick? What does it matter if you’re earning a starvation wage? What does it matter if you’re sleeping out on the street? What does it matter if you are 85 years of age and you can’t afford the prescription drugs that you need to ease your pain?
So what we are talking about, and what the definition of democratic socialism is to me, is making certain that economic rights have to be seen as human rights—not just political rights are human rights, which we believe strongly in; but economic rights are human rights, as well.
Nichols: What sort of economic rights are you talking about?
Sanders: When we talk about that, we’re talking about the right to a decent job, a job that pays you at least a living wage. We’re talking about the right to quality health care for every man, woman, and child. Health care is a right, not a privilege. We’re talking about affordable housing. That means everybody in America should be able to live in decent, safe housing that is affordable—that is not consuming 40, 50, 60 percent of their limited income.
We’re talking about education as a human right. That means quality pre-K and childcare. It means free public colleges and universities. It means doing away with much of the student debt that graduates or those who left school are now forced to assume.
We are talking about a decent retirement for our parents. Right now in America, you’ve got 20 percent of seniors trying to live on incomes of $13,500 a year, which is insane. And you’ve got millions and millions of seniors who can’t afford the prescription drugs that they need. People who have worked their whole lives, who have raised their kids, deserve to have a secure and decent retirement.
And last, but certainly not least, we’re talking about the right to a clean environment.… [All] over this country, you’ve got people who are turning on their water faucets today and the water that’s coming out is not drinkable. It’s toxic. You’ve got kids in the Bronx and many parts of this country, in urban areas, coming down with absolutely outrageous levels of asthma and other environmentally induced illnesses.
So the point here is that, in the year 2019 in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we have got to conclude that economic rights are human rights. And that’s what democratic socialism means to me.
I should also add just one other thing: that, obviously, when we see the power of government in action… what we have seen in recent years is not that it works for working people. You have seen attempts to make massive cuts to health care and education and environmental protections. But you have also seen massive federal aid to Wall Street with the biggest bailout in American history in 2008; and massive help to the fossil-fuel industry, to the pharmaceutical industry, and so forth and so on.
So, as people like Martin Luther King Jr. talked about, we do have socialism: We have socialism for the rich and large corporations, and we have unfettered free enterprise for working families.
We have to change that.
Nichols: When Roosevelt talked about economic rights as human rights, one of the arguments he made, that his supporters made, was that to fully engage in the democratic process, you needed an element of security. There was this suggestion that it is simply easier for people to be active citizens if they have at least some of the basics of life taken care of. So FDR linked economic and political rights by saying that, of course, the wealthy have the time and flexibility to always practice politics; but that, for working-class and low-income folks, it’s a struggle.
Sanders: Well, that’s right. It’s right in two senses.
First, the point that you made. It is no secret that poor people vote at a lower rate than wealthy people do. Wealthy people have the and the time to sit around and deal with politics. They have the money to actually, you know, donate large amounts of money. And, as you know, one of the scandals that we are working [to address] is [the US Supreme Court’s] Citizens United ruling—and the ability of billionaires to buy elections. The fact is that, when you have somebody that is making $7.25 or $9 an hour now, working 50–60 hours a week, I’m not so sure [that person has] the time to be reflecting about politics or to get involved in the political process to the extent that they would like to be involved…
The second point that I think Roosevelt was talking about, which is equally important, is that if government does not respond to the urgent economic needs of working families, they are going to give up on the political process. That’s above and beyond the issue of time.
If [working people] think that nobody gives a damn that they’re out there trying to raise a family on $9 an hour, why are they going to vote? If they can’t afford to go to a doctor, why are they going to vote? If they’re paying 25 percent interest rates on credit cards, or even 100 or 200 percent to a payday lender, and nobody is talking to their needs, why are they going to vote?
I think what Roosevelt talked about—and of course this was in the 1930s, when you’re dealing with the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and all over the world—[was this idea that] we have got to talk to the needs of working families and make them understand that government does hear their pain and is going to respond to their economic challenges.
Nichols: That was something Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, and others talked about in the 1940s, as World War II wound down. They said that there would always be demands from the right and the left on people. And that if progressives, if the Democratic Party, did not step up and deliver on economic rights, that there was the threat of authoritarians stepping up.
Sanders: Exactly. That’s exactly the point that I’m making. And it’s relevant today. I mean, I think it’s relevant all over the world. If you don’t give working people and young people a reason to participate in the political process, they won’t. And if working people and young people are not fully engaged, then bad things happen.
Nichols: You have talked about democratic socialism for a long time, throughout your career. But it seems that in this campaign you have talked about it more frequently and with more force. Is there something about this time in our history that you think creates an opening, a necessity, for this discussion?
Nichols: What’s going on?
Sanders: I think a couple of things:
Number one, I think it is very clear that young people, who by and large are progressive—the younger people are the most progressive generation in the history of this country; they are the most idealistic, and furthermore they are the first generation in the modern history of this country that is likely, unless we turn it around, to see a lower standard of living than their parents. They are saying, “The system is not working for us.” And they’re asking: “Why is the system not working?”
We have to talk about democratic socialism as an alternative to unfettered capitalism, where the rich get richer and almost everybody else is getting poorer. I think that’s a message that young people are receptive to, and I think it’s a message that working people are receptive to.
Right now, the average worker in America is making, in inflation-accounted-for dollars, and despite a huge increase in technology and worker productivity, exactly the same amount of money that he or she made 43 years ago. That’s incomprehensible.
There has been a massive transfer of wealth from the working class of this country to the top 1 percent. And at the end of the day, John—and the media doesn’t talk about it, the corporate media does not talk about it—nobody can defend three families in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of the American people. Or that 49 percent of all new income today goes to the top 1 percent. That is indefensible. That is outrageous. That is immoral. And I think the American people understand that has got to change.
Nichols: President Trump has been making a big deal about socialism, attacking it explicitly in his State of the Union address and in his other speeches. Am I right that you are trying to show—with the reference to Roosevelt, but also with the broader discussion—a way to respond to the president?
Sanders: You are exactly right. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Donald Trump himself, of course, is a major beneficiary of the massive amounts of corporate welfare. If you are the Trump family, you receive $885,000,000 worth of tax breaks and subsidies for your family’s housing empire that, among other things, was built on racial discrimination.… What Trump is about is socialism for the very rich. We are about socialism for working families. That’s the difference.