Democratic socialism is as American as apple pie: Why Bernie Sanders' views are in the mainstream

Sanders just delivered a much anticipated foundational overview of "democratic socialism" at Georgetown

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published November 20, 2015 12:57PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders                 (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

"Now I don't believe in some foreign 'ism,' but I believe deeply in American idealism," Bernie Sanders told a crowd gathered for his much anticipated speech, defending and explaining his often misunderstood political ideology at Georgetown on Thursday.

The self described democratic socialist explained just what exactly that moniker means and outlined America's deep history with democratic socialism, calling for a return to FDR-level public works programs and public investment:

Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.

And that is what we have to do today.


Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.

Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.

Sanders explained how his current platform, including his support for policies like the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, is rooted in the same derided "socialism" that brought on popular progressive principles like the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, and anti-child labor laws.

Sanders' essential argument is that democratic socialism is hardly new and hardly radical. Here are just a few more examples that help to illustrate the point:

Medicare and Medicaid

"In the 1960s," Sanders explained, "President Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to millions of senior citizens and families with children, persons with disabilities and some of the most vulnerable people in this county. Once again these vitally important programs were derided by the right wing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life."

Marking the 50th anniversary of the historic health insurance programs this year, 73 percent of Americans now describe Medicare as a "very important government program," while 63 percent say the same about Medicaid.

Social Security

"Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was socialist," Sanders reminded the audience.

Gallup polling has consistently found that Americans would rather raise taxes than curb benefits to save social security by significant margins. In fact, 67 percent of Americans want to lift the income cap on Social Security to require higher-income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all of their wages.

Fight for $15

"The concept of the 'minimum wage' was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as 'socialist,'" Sanders told the crowd.

Now, the fight over the minimum wage isn't as binary as simply raising it or not. The two Democratic candidates differ in how much to raise the federal minimum wage, although both support an increase, in stark contrast with nearly every Republican candidate. In July, Sanders introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. His Democratic rival Hillary Clinton has said she would only raise the federal minimum wage to $12, but says she supports state and local fights for $15 in places "that can go higher."

A January poll found that 63 percent of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage to $15.

"Democratic socialism means that if someone works forty hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty: that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage – $15 an hour over the next few years," Sanders said on Thursday.

Wall Street oversight

In a new Rolling Stone interview out this week, Sanders vowed to immediately hold bad actors on Wall Street accountable. "On day one, I am appointing a special committee to investigate the crimes on Wall Street,” the populist promised.

A 2013 poll found that regulating financial services and products was seen as either "important" or "very important" to more than 90 percent of American voters. Not one Wall Street executive has ever been held criminally liable for the 2008 global financial collapse.

Here are just a few more "radical" ideas from Sanders that enjoy majority support with the American people.

Watch Sanders' full "democratic socialism" speech below:

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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