Socialist has never been a complimentary term in American political discourse, but it has reached a particularly high level of toxicity during the past six years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
While the president and his defenders have spent a great deal of time parrying that attack, Bernie Sanders is using the socialist label to his advantage, packing venues around the country and establishing himself as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s leading challenger for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders, 73, has been preaching socialism for nearly half a century, and he cites Eugene Debs, the five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, as his hero. But he hasn’t always embraced the label.
“I myself don’t use the word socialism,” he said in 1976 in the Vermont Cynic, a student publication at the University of Vermont, “because people have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labor camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech.”
Even when Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington in 1981, “Bernie never mentioned the word ‘socialist’ in his campaign,” according to Greg Guma, a longtime Sanders watcher and the author of “The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.”
When he won, though, it wasn’t Sanders’ choice anymore.
“The media probably made that label stick,” said Alan Abbey, who covered Sanders at the time for the Burlington Free Press. “It makes for good headlines.”
“I’ve stayed away from calling myself a socialist,” Sanders said in the Boston Globe in the aftermath of his win in ‘81, “because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.”
Two months later, in the Boston Phoenix, he said he didn’t want to be “a spokesman for socialism.”
It’s what he’s become. And even though less than half of Americans say they would vote for a socialist for president (47 percent, fewer than would vote for an atheist or a Muslim), Sanders is sticking with it.
Here, then, are 14 things Sanders has said about socialism since the ‘80s:
1. In the summer 1986 issue of a now-defunct magazine called Vermont Affairs: “All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small ‘d.’ I believe in democracy, and by democracy I mean that, to as great an extent as possible, human beings have the right to control their own lives. And that means that you cannot separate the political structure from the economic structure. One has to be an idiot to believe that the average working person who’s making $10,000 or $12,000 a year is equal in political power to somebody who is the head of a large bank or corporation. So if you believe in political democracy, if you believe in equality, you have to believe in economic democracy as well.”
3. From the 1988 dissertation of Steven Soifer, a professor of social work at the University of Memphis, who wrote about Sanders’ time as mayor of Burlington: “What being a socialist means is … that you hold out … a vision of society where poverty is absolutely unnecessary, where international relations are not based on greed … but on cooperation … where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire.”
4. In an interview with Catherine Alison Hill for a master’s thesis she wrote at Cornell in 1989: “Socialism has a lot of different messages to different people. I think the issue of socialist ideology and what that meant or means is not terribly important. I think the positive of it is that it indicates to people that I am not a conventional politician. If they are not happy with the status quo, then that is a positive thing. The negative of it obviously is that there are people who equate it with totalitarianism and the Soviet Union.”
5. In a speech he gave at the National Committee for Independent Political Action in New York City on June 22, 1989, reprinted in the December 1989 issue of the socialist publication Monthly Review: “In Vermont, everybody knows that I am a socialist and that many people in our movement, not all, are socialists. And as often as not — and this is an interesting point that is the honest-to-God truth — what people will say is, ‘I don’t really know what socialism is, but if you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, you’re OK with me.’ That’s true. And I think there has been too much of a reluctance on the part of progressives and radicals to use the word ‘socialism.’”
7. In an interview with The Associated Press in November 1990: “To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.”
8. In the book he wrote with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the House, published in 1997: “Bill Clinton is a moderate Democrat. I’m a democratic socialist.”
9. In an interview with the Guardian in November 2006: “Twenty years ago, when people here thought about socialism they were thinking about the Soviet Union, about Albania. Now they think about Scandinavia. In Vermont people understand I’m talking about democratic socialism.”
10. In an interview with The Washington Post in November 2006. “I wouldn’t deny it. Not for one second. I’m a democratic socialist. … In Norway, parents get a paid year to care for infants. Finland and Sweden have national health care, free college, affordable housing and a higher standard of living. … . Why shouldn’t that appeal to our disappearing middle class?”
11. In an interview with Democracy Now in November 2006: “In terms of socialism, I think there is a lot to be learned from Scandinavia and from some of the work, very good work that people have done in Europe. In countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, poverty has almost been eliminated. All people have health care as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free. I have been very aggressive in trying to move to sustainable energy. They have a lot of political participation, high voter turnouts. I think there is a lot to be learned from countries that have created more egalitarian societies than has the United States of America.”
12. To Democracy Now: “I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.”
13. In an interview with the Des Moines Register this month: “If you look at the issues — you don’t have to worry about the word ‘socialist’ — just look at what I’m talking about. If you go out and ask the American people: Is it right that the middle class continues to disappear while there has been a massive transfer of wealth from working families to the top one-tenth of 1 percent? Trillions of dollars in the last 30 years have flowed from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. And the American people say, ‘No, that’s not right.’ And if you ask the American people: Do you think it’s right that despite an explosion of technology and an increase in worker productivity, the average worker is working longer hours for low wages? They say no. And what the American people are saying pretty loudly and clearly is they want an economy that works for ordinary Americans. For working people. Not an economy where almost all of the income and all of the wealth is going to the top 1 percent. That’s what we have now.”
14. In an interview with The Nation this month: “Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.”