A Socialist for President? Sanders' Democratic Socialism

November 12, 2015

What is 'democratic socialism'? Bernie Sanders' presidential bid is raising a question many Americans have never considered. In two readings, students explore Sanders' version of socialism and learn some background about democratic socialism in Europe and the U.S.  


To The Teacher:

For the first time in many years, America is having a serious discussion about socialism. Throughout 2015, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has waged an unexpectedly successful race to challenge Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries. Sanders identifies himself as a democratic socialist, and his campaign has tried to educate the public about a set of ideas that are usually relegated to the margins of mainstream political discourse.

But what does Sanders mean by "democratic socialism"?  And is this political tradition an import from other countries, or does it have roots in American history?

This lesson consists of two readings designed to introduce students to the idea of democratic socialism and encourage them to think critically about its history and present-day significance. The first reading provides background on the concept of democratic socialism and considers the unique moment the Sanders campaign has created. The second reading examines the longer history of socialist politics in the United States. Questions for discussion follow each reading.



Student Reading 1:
What is Democratic Socialism?


For the first time in many years, America is having a discussion about socialism. Throughout 2015, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has waged an unexpectedly successful race to challenge Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries. Sanders identifies himself as a democratic socialist, and his campaign has tried to educate the public about a set of ideas that are usually relegated to the margins of mainstream political discourse.

But what does Sanders mean by "democratic socialism"? And is this political tradition an import from other countries, or does it have roots in American history?

In an October 27, 2015, article for the Huffington Post, historian Van Gosse examines the brand of socialism promoted by Sanders. Gosse also describes how the Sanders campaign has emerged in a worldwide political moment when socialist ideas are enjoying a resurgence. He writes:

It's a fine irony that after years of allegations President Obama was a covert "socialist," we now have the genuine article in Senator Bernard Sanders, and no one knows what to make of his unblushing socialism....

Around the world, socialism remains a potent idea - to be not just "populist" or "anti- corporate," but anti-capitalist, imagining a world where, indeed, society is organized on the principle "from each according to his or her ability" and "to each according to his or her need." A significant fraction of the world's people, especially in Europe's social democracies and Latin America, define themselves as socialists....

The variety of socialism that Bernie Sanders supports is the Scandinavian or Canadian model, in which the government acts on behalf of all of society to guarantee social and human rights: the right to decent health, to education, to employment, to a long life free from worries about old age. Capitalism doesn't just fail to ensure such rights and "social goods," it actively blocks them in its insistence on taking profit anywhere it can.

The senator talks of having a "class analysis," which means analyzing the differences in power and influence between different social classes. If you live in the American fairyland where almost everybody is "middle class," and it's rude to acknowledge the dominance of a permanent monied elite, then such talk is strange. But all societies are organized into classes - those who produce wealth (workers, including the vast numbers in "service industries"), those who control the wealth produced by others (capitalists), in between the professionals and managers who facilitate this process, including university professors, as well as small businesspeople and the self-employed. Obviously, this is a spectrum, not a set of simple categories, but it is the reality we inhabit, and Sanders speaks for the large majority who are neither capitalists nor part of the professional-managerial class. He asserts the capitalist class has claimed the overwhelming preponderance of power in our political system, and that this domination is wrong.

The term "socialism" can be confusing to some, as it refers to a political tradition that over time has grown to encompass a wide range of views. In an October 28, 2015, opinion for CNN.com, historian Lawrence Wittner describes how Sanders’ version of socialism fits within a wider political tradition:

The roots of socialism lie in the desire to foster greater economic and social equality by exercising popular control over the economy. During the 19th century, with the rise of giant corporations owned by individuals of vast wealth, this impulse was strengthened, especially among workers and the poor.

Karl Marx famously advocated that workers should take back the wealth they had produced for the corporate titans that had stolen it from them. In countries where democracy grew in the early 20th century, workers began to form socialist parties: the British Labor Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the French Socialist Party, the Australian Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party, and many others that, by winning elections, moved their countries toward a combination of democracy, civil liberties, and greater social and economic democracy.

However, in dictatorial societies, such as czarist Russia and authoritarian China, revolutions broke out, resulting in the establishment of communist regimes. The democratic socialist parties sharply rejected these new communist dictatorships, while the communist parties ridiculed the democratic socialist parties.

Bernie Sanders champions the democratic socialist model, which would benefit all people rather than the wealthy few. With economic inequality growing in the United States in recent decades, it's no surprise that he is drawing widespread support.

Conservatives argue that Sanders' brand of socialism, with its emphasis on redistributing wealth through taxes on the rich and on Wall Street, restraining corporate power, and enacting broad social programs, is fiscally irresponsible and discourages innovation and competition.  

Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Bobbie Jindal, and Rand Paul, have jabbed at Sanders for his socialism. Republicans. Trump called Sanders an "admitted socialist. Some people think he’s even worse than that. He’s the next step."  However, in the American Conservative entitled "Democrats are not Socialists, and Neither is Bernie Sanders," Samuel Goldman, professor of political science at George Washington University, argues that Sanders’ version of socialism isn’t really socialism at all:

Historically, the essential feature of socialism is the demand for public ownership or direct government control of major sectors of the economy. A bit more abstractly, socialists have aimed to eliminate considerations of profit from as many areas of life as possible. They used to the describe this goal as "revolution," which didn’t necessarily mean violence.

The modern Democratic Party isn’t about revolution. Since FDR, Democrats have consistently supported regulated competition and redistributive policies that direct private profits toward the relative losers in market exchange. These strategies are better understood as "welfarism" than socialism. ... Most "Socialist" parties in Europe abandoned their revolutionary dreams a long time ago. And the self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders offers a welfarist agenda that’s barely updated from the ’50s.  So no, Democrats aren’t socialists.

During a May appearance on ABC's This Week, Bernie Sanders was questioned by host George Stephanopoulos about the mainstream viability of his democratic socialist beliefs. "I can hear the Republican attack ad now," began Stephanopoulos, "'He wants America to look more like Scandinavia.'" Sanders replied: "That's right. And what's wrong with that?"

In a May 4, 2015, article for Mic.com, politics staff writer Zeeshan Aleem discusses the numerous ways in which the Scandinavian brand of socialism to which Sanders subscribes has produced positive results. Aleem writes that "Scandinavian countries have much higher tax rates and much more robust government involvement in the distribution of services."  He then provides "concrete examples of the different quality of life people can expect when their welfare is considered a right rather than something to be earned."  These include:

  • Greater economic equality: While the U.S. is ranked as the second most unequal country in the developed world, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are among the most equal. 
  • Free higher ed: Higher education in Scandinavian countries is either virtually free or free.
  • Minimum wage: In Denmark, fast food workers make the equivalent of about $20 an hour.
  • Cheaper and universal healthcare: Scandinavian countries guarantee coverage for all their citizens, but pay less for it. Sweden spends about half what the U.S. spends on healthcare per person per year.
  • Affordable childcare: In the U.S., a year of daycare costs more than a year's in-state college tuition. Scandinavian countries provide subsidized childcare so that almost everyone can afford it.

Whether or not Sanders is able to secure the Democratic Party nomination, his campaign has fostered a vibrant debate about democratic socialism in the United States.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read
  2. Based on the reading, how do you think we should define democratic socialism?
  3. Historian Van Gosse mentions "the American fairyland where almost everybody is 'middle class.'" What does he mean by this? Do you think the concept of the "middle class" is overused in the United States? In what ways is this concept helpful and in what ways might it conceal social realities in our country?
  4. The reading describes some of the social advances achieved by Scandinavian countries. Do you think these could be implemented in the United States? Why or why not?
  5. The political tradition of democratic socialism is critical of the type of communism that was implemented in the Soviet Union and China. This split is often overlooked when people talk about socialism in the United States. Why do you think that might be?



Student Reading 2:
Socialism: An American Tradition?

Conservatives in the United States have long used the word "socialist" as an insult. Especially since the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s, many mainstream commentators have contended that socialism is simply antithetical to American values.

Despite the prevalence of such skeptical attitudes, socialist ideas in the United States go back more than 100 years, and have helped shape many of the policies and rights we take for granted today. In the October 21, 2015, issue of The Nation, historian Eric Foner wrote an open letter to Bernie Sanders urging the Senator to highlight this American tradition of socialism. He suggested to Sanders:

Of course, every politician gives lip service to the idea of enhancing economic opportunity, but you have, rightly, emphasized that to secure this requires the active involvement of the federal government, not simply letting the free market work its supposed magic. Your antecedents include not just FDR’s New Deal but also his Second Bill of Rights of 1944, inspired by the era’s labor movement, which called for the government to guarantee to all Americans the rights to employment, education, medical care, a decent home, and other entitlements that are out of reach for too many today. You could point to A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget of 1967, which asked the federal government to address the deep economic inequalities the civil-rights revolution had left untouched. But beyond these and other examples, the point is that the rights we enjoy today—civil, political, economic, social—are the result of struggles of the past, not gifts from on high. That’s what you mean when you say we need a citizens’ revolution.

CNN commentator Van Jones argued in an October 28, 2015, article that Sanders would be better off emphasizing the American roots of his ideas than focusing on models from other countries. Jones wrote:

Right here in the United States, we have Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration -- all of which have socialist elements. Socialist ideas inspired much of the labor movement, which brought everyone something called "The Weekend."

Americans hate to admit this. But since the Great Depression, we have not had a true "market economy." We are a mixed economy -- blending (mainly) free market principles with some socialist ideals. Many of our nation's greatest social achievements were once called "socialist" -- including, for example, free public education.

Therefore, Sanders could talk about how his ideals have contributed to America's historical greatness. He could position himself as defending and extending the work of our grandparents -- who tamed Wall Street and softened the edges of industrial capitalism.

His praise of foreign lands gets him dismissed as both alien and red. Bernie Sanders would be better off showing how his ideas are actually "red, white and blue."


While not often mentioned in school history textbooks, some key figures in American history considered themselves socialists, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., senior fellow at the Opportunity Agenda thinktank, noted in a January 20, 2014 article for the Huffington Post, that King possessed not only an analysis of racial injustice, but also a class analysis. Hendricks wrote:

In the thousands of speeches and celebrations on the official Martin Luther King holiday since its inception, there is a crucial fact of his life, activism and thought that no major commemoration has ever celebrated: that King was a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism....

How can the inherent structural injustice of capitalism be addressed? For King the answer was democratic socialism. An aide recalled that at a meeting with his SCLC staff in the mid-1960s, King "talked about the fact that he didn't believe that capitalism as it was constructed could meet the needs of poor people, and that what we might need to look at was a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism."

In a 1966 speech to his staff, King explained: "[W]e are saying that something is wrong ... with capitalism.... There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children."

Some Sanders opponents have tried to paint socialism as un-American. However, history shows us that socialism has deep roots in this country's history and has helped shape its institutions.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some of the social movements--and some of the political figures associated with them-- that have advocated for socialist ideas? Do you know of others not mentioned here?
  3. According to the reading, what elements of American public policy could be described as having socialist influences?
  4. It is commonly argued that socialism is un-American. What are some arguments for and against this position?
  5. Do you think Bernie Sanders is wise to point to Western European countries as models for his brand of socialism, or do you think he should focus more on the American political tradition? Defend your position.