Bernie Sanders is comfortable with the term “socialist.”
“Do they think I’m afraid of the word ‘socialist’?” he said in a conversation with The Nation earlier this year. “I’m not afraid of the word.”
Since he was elected 34 years ago as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he has been consistent in his embrace of the label, and in his willingness to patiently explain what that means. He is not embarrassed or unsettled by it. It is not necessary to call him an “admitted” or “acknowledged” or “self-proclaimed” socialist. The senator from Vermont is a democratic socialist, just like the prime ministers and premiers and presidents of a long list of countries that have been closely allied with the United States, just like the democratic-socialist big-city mayors, state legislators and members of Congress who have been elected by the American people over the past 120 years.
Sanders does not see his ideology as a barrier to a serious presidential candidacy. Neither do the hundreds of thousands of Americans—many of whom identify as democratic socialists, many of whom do not—who have indicated support for his 2016 presidential campaign by volunteering, making campaign donations and showing up for huge political rallies in cities across the country. Despite the best efforts of political and media elites to dismiss and diminish socialist ideas, polls show that Americans are increasingly open to the ideology. Polls of millennials in recent years have found slightly higher levels of approval for socialism than capitalism.
Yet, Sanders is regularly pressed on the ideology issue by television interviewers.
On Sunday, he pressed back with a question of his own.
Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sanders engaged with host Chuck Todd in a easy back-and-forth regarding his brand of socialism.
“Alright,” began Todd, “You joked about the idea when people call you a socialist, you say, ‘Yes, I’m going to make everybody wear the same color pajamas.’”
“Especially you,” replied Sanders.
“Especially me?” asked the host.
“I have a pair of pajamas just for you,” said the candidate who currently leads in polls from the first primary state of New Hampshire and is closely competitive with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the first-caucus state of Iowa.
“I hear you,” said an amused Todd, who recalled that “the other day I noticed you said, ‘You know what? Don’t use the word ‘socialist.’ I’m going to say I’m a progressive.’ Are you pushing back on that idea?”
“No, no not at all,” said Sanders, making it clear that he was neither abandoning nor avoiding the “socialist” label.
Sanders explained that he was trying to make a point: “When one of your Republican colleagues gets on the show, do you say, ‘Are you a capitalist?’ Have you ever referred to them as capitalists?”
Todd did not respond but instead took one more stab at ideology inquiry.
“Yeah,” he said to Sanders, “Are you a capitalist?”
“No,” the senator replied, “I’m a democratic socialist.”
So that question is settled. Again.
But the point Sanders was making is an important one.
Why not ask Republican and Democratic candidates whether they are capitalists?
Indeed, why not start with Tuesday’s first Democratic debate?
It’s likely that most candidates will say they are capitalists.
But that doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion.
What kind of capitalists are they?
Are they “crony capitalists” who believe in rewarding their campaign donors and political associates with federal grants and loans and tax benefits?
Are they “casino capitalists” who imagine that Social Security can somehow be “saved” by gambling the money on the stock market?
Are they “disaster capitalists” who believe that it is appropriate to profit off the suffering of others?
What lines do they draw? To what extent do they choose to temper capitalism’s excesses with social and humanitarian interventions?
To what extent do they accept a mixed economy where the market provides some definition while society (via an elected government) provides for the common defense, education and health and welfare?
Are they satisfied that capitalism as it is currently organized in America is working? What would they change?
These are reasonable questions and candidates will have different answers, just as candidates who identify as democratic socialists describe distinct values, ideals, priorities, and understandings.
Sanders takes plenty of those questions, patiently explaining his views with short tutorials on social democracy. “I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding,” he says. “How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?”
The subject of socialism may well come up during the first Democratic debate—as it already has in Republican debates.
If Americans can handle a debate about socialism’s strengths and weaknesses, surely they can handle a brief back-and-forth regarding capitalism.