In Tuesday night’s debate of Democrats seeking the presidency, Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t do the best job saying what it meant to be a democratic socialist when pressed by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper.
“Senator Sanders, a Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House," Cooper began. "You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election?”
“Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is,” Sanders tartly replied. “And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent —almost —own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent." Moreover, every other "major country" considers health care a right, and offers paid family and medical leave, he said. And Americans should learn from "countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway."
Though the audience applauded, this was not Bernie’s best answer.
Not only did it give Hillary Clinton an opening to say that while she agreed with his economic critique, the U.S. was not Denmark but a greater country, belittling him. But Sanders' reply delved into details instead of more clearly stating his core principles.
In 1988, when Bernie Sanders was first running for the U.S. House, he made a cassette recording. One side featured folk songs that he "sang," while the B side was filled with personal reflections, beginning with a revealing explanation of what socialism means to him. It starts with a vision for a much better world, living and participating in a real democracy, and controling one's economic destiny.
Bernie didn’t use any of these lines in Tuesday’s debate, but perhaps going forward he will, as his core philosophy has not wavered. Here, in its entirety, is what he said:
What Does Socialism Mean?
“What does it mean to be a socialist?” Bernie starts. “It means a lot of things. I think first though, and most important, it means that you have a vision that’s very different from what the status quo politicians have, and essentially, what it means is that you have a feeling that this world can be radically, radically different from what it is right now, and that what's going on in front of your eyes is crazy, it’s not real, it’s a phase of history that needn't exist and that someday will pass.
“You really can almost take it seriously that you live in a world where it is considered normal that people go around killing each other. You turn on the television, there they are shooting each other. You turn on the television, there you have people who are living out on the streets or in some places on this planet starving to death, while at the same time you have other people who have billions and billions of dollars. More wealth than they’re going to be able to use in a million lifetimes.
“The basic insanity of that, the immorality of that to me is so abhorrent that my feeling is that somebody, hopefully, in years to come people look back on this era and say, How could it be? How could people allow other people to be hungry, starve to death, they having nothing when other people had tremendous wealth?
“Also what socialism means for me is very similar to what it meant for Eugene Debs, and it really means nothing more than democracy. It basically means that human beings are entitled to have the inalienable right to control their own lives, and that means that when you go to work you're not working for somebody else who could fire you tomorrow because they don't like the way you comb your hair or you don’t come to work on Sunday or, for any reason, whether they can move the factory that you’ve worked in for 30 years out of your town because they can make more money going to Mexico.
“It means democracy, which means much more than just having the right to vote once every four years. People think, ‘Well, we live in a democratic society.’ In some degree, we do. We have some democratic rights, but having the freedom to vote for [presidential candidates] Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale once every four years isn’t what democracy is about.
“It essentially means that to as great a degree as possible, human beings can control their lives, their workplace, their environment, and the truth is that in a nation of 230 million people in a complex society, no one quite knows how that's going to work. I mean, that’s not easy.
“I think we know that there aren’t necessarily simplistic type of solutions, but when I look at the world today and you find that half the people don’t even vote anymore. They’ve given up on the political system. The overwhelming majority of poor people don't participate. That people feel themselves impotent, they feel themselves powerless.
“They vote for the Reagans or the Mondales because of 30-second commercials; that the politicians in our country today are bought and sold as commodities. They’re sold on the TV as somebody who has run for office that you know that most of what people do in a campaign is figure out how they can raise money from wealthy people in order to pay for these 30 seconds. That’s not democracy.
“It’s not democracy when the media in this country is owned by gigantic corporations who define and shape the issues for you, and politicians are puppets sitting around thinking, God, how do I get my message on 27 seconds that they’re going to give me on the television screen, maybe if I’m lucky?
“The truth is you can’t explain complex issues in 27 seconds, but the people who own the TV stations could care less because their function and their desire is not to see people communicate with each other, not to see really real discussion of the issues of the day, but to make money.
“That’s basically what socialism means to me. Democracy, participation, the right of people to own the world in which they live in rather than be slaves of other people.”
The next 2016 Democratic Party presidential debate is Saturday, November 14, in Des Moines, Iowa. The other four debates will be in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida.