“Do I think Bernie Sanders should talk about democratic socialism? Yes, I do,” says Iowan Mary Clark. “I want him to explain everything in detail—give people a really good explanation. People who like Bernie are probably going to like him a little more if he does that. And people who aren’t supporting Bernie now might just say, ‘It sounds like he’s got some ideas that would actually solve our problems.’”
Clark isn’t a pundit or a pollster; nor does she sell herself as an expert on economics or presidential politics. She’s a rural Iowan who worries a lot about whether her neighbors will have clean water, decent housing, and fair pay. She’s worked a few minimum-wage jobs herself, and she knows a lot of folks who are struggling to get by along the rural routes that pass through her corner of Iowa’s Polk County. She talks to them about politics, and she always talks up Sanders. People like what they hear, she says. “But then they hear these guys on television saying, ‘Bernie Sanders can’t get elected because he’s a democratic socialist.’ So Bernie has to talk about it. But he doesn’t have to apologize for anything. He should say, ‘You’re wrong—I can get elected as a democratic socialist, and here’s why.’”
As he prepared to deliver one of the most important speeches of his presidential campaign, the independent senator from Vermont got a lot of advice on how to explain the democratic-socialist ideal that he’s embraced for more than five decades—an ideology that Donald Trump equates with Soviet-style communism and Rand Paul promises will “exterminate” those who do not follow the party line.
Sanders, who has said that he would like to debate Republicans and Democrats as part of his boundary-breaking presidential run, might yet find that the best way to demythologize the notion of democratic socialism would be in a spirited debate with a member of the billionaire class like Trump. In the meantime, he finds himself leading a discussion that American politics and the American media haven’t really entertained since the days of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate who appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was featured on a daily basis in The New York Times’s coverage of the 1932 presidential race.
Talking about democratic socialism is nothing new for Sanders. In fact, what distinguishes his candidacy from that of any nationally noted contender since Thomas is that he not only accepts the label but willingly engages in extended discussions of the concepts, values, and models associated with it. “I’m not afraid of the word,” he told The Nation earlier this year, adding that “Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, often criticizes President Obama—incorrectly—for trying to push ‘European-style socialism,’ and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, 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 [by] those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding.”