Democratic Socialism in the US: The Presidential Campaign of Bernie Sanders

Dana Hartman

Senator Sanders. Photo Source: John Pemble via Flickr Creative Commons.

On 26 May, 2015, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders formally announced his candidacy for President of the United States, making him the first official challenger to Hillary Clinton from within the Democratic Party. While Clinton is still largely considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Sanders’ candidacy represents a challenge emanating from the left wing of the party. However, analyzing Sanders’ candidacy merely in terms of what it means for Hillary Clinton would be to ignore the pertinent causes that Sanders speaks out for – including income inequality and the decline of the American middle class. Sanders’ campaign also offers an opportunity to analyse the acceptance of democratic socialist ideals in a country that often appears vehemently opposed to them, and whether or not Sanders himself truly embodies those ideals.

Sanders’ campaign platform is predicated almost entirely on addressing issues of wealth and income inequality. Sanders is in support of a single-payer health care system, environmental sustainability, affordable college education, and an increase in the minimum wage. A major component of Sanders’ platform is decreasing the political influence of “the billionaire class.” Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose top donors include Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, Sanders’ largest contributors are trade unions, and the majority of his campaign contributions so far have been in the form of small, individual donations.

While Sanders is running as a Democratic candidate and caucuses with the Democratic Party, he is a lifelong independent – and unique among US politicians, Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist.” In the United States, it is rare to have a candidate unabashedly refer to themselves as a “socialist” – after all, this is a term that was frequently leveled as a pejorative against President Barack Obama and other politicians even marginally associated with the left. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), or “Obamacare,” was disparaged as being a form of socialism by many Tea Party-associated members of the House of Representatives. This was despite the fact that health insurance under the ACA is still provided by private practitioners and paid for by private insurers. The labeling of the ACA and Barack Obama himself as “socialist” was a mischaracterization at best, but demonstrates how loaded the term has remained in modern US politics.

There does exist a modern Socialist Party in the US, which is a successor to the Socialist Party of America, which was first founded in 1901 and dissolved in 1972. However, like all third parties in the US, the Socialist Party has only a very superficial amount of political power. As an independent, Bernie Sanders has never aligned himself with the smaller socialist parties in the United States. When considering Sanders’ platform, it is important to note the distinction between “democratic socialism” and classical socialist ideology, in which the former maintains that socialist goals should be achieved first and foremost through democratic elections. Sanders himself has stated that he looks to Scandinavian governments as a model for how the US should operate. In a 2006 interview with Democracy Now! following his first Senate victory, Sanders characterized his own definition of socialism as follows:

Well, 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 healthcare; 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.

Despite being a favorite of the left, Sanders holds a much more conventional and mainstream stance when it comes to matters of foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Israel. While he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Sanders is by no means a pacifist, and supported Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2014. Sanders’ positions on foreign policy has proved controversial among socialists and others on the left – in this area, he appears indistinguishable from most mainstream Democrats. In his 12 step “Agenda for America,” Sanders does not discuss his foreign policy positions at all, instead choosing to focus on domestic policy.

Owing to his age (Sanders is 71) and his unapologetic rhetoric, Sanders has, at least initially, struggled with being portrayed by the media as more than a fringe candidate. However, there is significant evidence that Sanders’ platform has more widespread support among Americans than first assumed. Sanders has been drawing increasingly larger crowds to his events, and is currently polling within 10 points of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, where the first primary will take place.  Sanders is also proving popular among supporters of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a popular politician who is similarly outspoken about issues of wealth inequality. In comparison to fellow Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee, Sanders is faring extremely well, indicating that his positions can indeed resonate with the American electorate. The popularity of Sanders’ campaign thus far has shown that his socialism isn’t a political liability. It is worth noting, however, that while Sanders’ support for populist causes is abundantly clear, nowhere in his campaign platform does he explicitly use the term “socialism” – indicating that the use of the word is still taboo in mainstream US politics.

As an acknowledged socialist, the struggle for Bernie Sanders will be in convincing both voters and the media that he is a viable candidate and rival to Hillary Clinton. For his supporters, the hope is that the candidacy of Bernie Sanders will draw attention to the dire state of wealth inequality in America. Sanders has already accomplished a laudable task in changing the narrative surrounding the 2016 election and bringing previously marginalized ideas to the forefront. Whether or not Sanders will find success in promoting his own conception of democratic socialism depends on if American voters are willing to look beyond political labels and to the substantive content of his platform. Given Sanders’ momentum in recent weeks, it seems that voters are doing exactly that.

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