As a German I really don't get calling Bernie Sanders a socialist. In every country in Europe he would be a social democrat at best, but somehow in the USA he's a "socialist" and "communist" you should be afraid of.
Basically Bernie Sanders used the wrong term and it stuck. For some unfathomable reason, he refers to himself as a socialist while espousing policies that are clearly social Democrat in line with most European states. He has done himself no favors. If he had said social democrat, he wouldn't have received as much McCarthy-ist style attacks. He is definitely espousing a European style model rather than a Venezuelan style model. Because of his mistake, the term's meaning has changed, and now others like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are calling themselves socialists too even though they're not. The DSA themselves also describe themselves in terms that sound a lot more like social democracy than democratic socialism.
Bernie's key policy positions are all Medicare For All, lowering prescription drug prices, a jobs program to shift America's energy production rapidly towards green energy, and tuition free public colleges. I could source this, but he says it in literally every speech or interview he's ever done, so that would be a bit redundant!
Bernie Sanders gave a great interview in 2006 with Democracy Now where he explained his version of socialism. You can compare that with the DSA position linked above.
Why is it that Bernie Sanders always called a "socialist"?
I think getting a quick history lesson to get some context might help explain how "socialist" is used in US media.
First, I want to highlight the long history of anti-(anti-capitalism); second, show how anything anti-capitalism is generally conflated; and third, how this is the case in the present day.
Discussing communism might seem like a detour, but bear with me for a moment. I'll start with The (first) Red Scare (1917-1920):
Political scientist, and former member of the Communist Party Murray B. Levin wrote that the Red Scare was "a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life".
Around the time of the second world war McCarthyism (~ second red scare) took hold:
During the McCarthy era, hundreds of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers; they became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private industry panels, committees and agencies.
You might notice that the above two quotes only reference communism. I'll discuss this a bit more below, but I want to continue the walk through history with a quote from wiki page on the history of socialism in the United States:
COINTELPRO [(1956–1971)] was a series of covert and at times illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations FBI records show that 85% of COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed "subversive", including communist and socialist organizations; ...
The point is, there's a long history in the US of government responses to anti-capitalist movements, as these are generally not viewed favorably. There's a lot more that could be said (labor movements; class; race & racism; gender, to name a few related issues), but that's a rough overview.
The second point I wanted to address was the conflation of anti-capitalist terms. I pointed out that two of the quotes only mentioned communism, but actually all of the above wiki pages can be found on the history of socialism in the US wiki page. I wanted to bring this up to point out that the government response conflates anti-capitalist movements. The same wiki page notes that
The widespread use of the word "socialism" as a political epithet against the Obama government by its opponents caused National Director Frank Llewellyn to declare that "over the past 12 months, the Democratic Socialists of America has received more media attention than it has over the past 12 years"
Even though the Obama administration and most leftists agreed that his administration was not socialist. The source for this claim is a Chicago Tribune article, which goes on to say:
To most, socialist policies are synonymous with any expansion in government spending (although many capitalist nations funnel more of their gross domestic product through the public sector than the U.S. does). source
Here's a foxnews article which defines socialism as communism, (though I think the author was trying to distinguish the two):
There was a time in American politics when the term "socialism" conjured up images of the Cold War, the U.S.S.R, Joseph Stalin and Karl Marx, nuclear threats, government domination of private industry and gulags. For most Americans who came of age during the height of the Cold War, who remember being taught to hide under their desks at school, socialism – like communism – has long been a dirty word. source
In summary, in the United States, pro-capitalism is the majority view (to varying degrees; this means different things to different people). That is, people endorsing communism, socialism, and democratic socialism are a small minority (i.e., as a ruling system of government). The distinction between communism, socialism, and democratic socialism is generally lost on anyone outside specific academic groups, and lost on the general a-politic public. It is only when you venture in to certain leftist groups that the distinction between these groups is recognized. (And maybe certain non-leftist groups too. The point is, a small minority.)
Third, to go back to the original question:
Why is it that Bernie Sanders always called a "socialist"?
You're right that Sanders is not a socialist. But he's aware of the US sentiment of the term, as I outlined above. For example, an article on a Sanders speech :
Throughout the decades, he [Sanders] argued, "socialist" has been a term conservatives deployed when Democrats do something popular:
Almost everything [Roosevelt] proposed was called "socialist." I thought I would mention that just in passing. Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country, was defined by his opponents as "socialist." The concept of the "minimum wage"—that workers had to be paid at least a certain amount of money for their labor—was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as "socialist."
He has embraced this view of himself as someone that supports progressive social policies. Though he does tend to describe himself as "social democratic" when discussing the topic, and seems to be aware of the different in terms:
Sanders: Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, often criticizes President Obama, incorrectly, for trying to push "European-style socialism," and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding… source
In summary, Sanders is called "socialist" because the US media in general describes policies that provide some kind of assistance (for example, food aid or health care) as socialist. This is just the current nature of the discussion at the national level. This is a rather US centric (i.e., isolated) understanding of the term "socialist" which is more properly understood in countries to the left of the United States.
Sanders doesn't seem to object to the term if it is applied to him, but when discussing his views will refer to himself as "democratic socialist" instead of "socialist." And just as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not democratic, neither is "democratic socialist" the same thing as "socialist." But as detailed above, this distinction is rarely made clear in US media.
It seems likely that people call him a socialist because he's self-identified as one on multiple occasions.
When he first won election to the House in 1990, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) embraced his political identity. "I am a socialist and everyone knows that," Sanders said, responding to an ad that tried to link him to the regime of Fidel Castro.
Folks who support the view that Sanders is actually socialist sometimes point to this quote from him way back in 1987:
Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production, it means decentralization, it means involving people in their work. Rather than having bosses and workers it means having democratic control over the factories and shops to as great a degree as you can.
Sanders continues to demonstrate admiration for Eugene V. Debs, the most prominent Socialist candidate in the history of the United States.
But yes, if we focus on his major policy proposals and imagine Sanders in a multiparty parliamentary democracy, the label "Social Democrat" would be a better fit.
I think there's an important distinction to be made in the examples you noted.
The left-of-center news outlets actually make an effort to call him by his chosen name of "Democratic Socialist."
It's the right-wing sources that conflate the terminology.
(Of course, by European standard, all of these sources would probably be considered a little more to the right than the US ranks them.)
The right-wing likes to use the word socialism as a pejorative, capitalizing on how little Americans know about socialism in the non-pejorative sense, and how much disinformation and conflations has been made about it in the past. If you live in the US, go ahead, try asking random people you know what socialism is. You'll probably get some really funny answers, like "Putin is a socialist" as I do when the topic comes up.
The meaning of the word socialist changes by country and by era. Social democratic is especially crucial in Germany because of the national-socialist phenomenon. The word is a popular ideal which was abused by despots and which lost favor after the 80's, mostly for its use by despots, it's vagueness and lack of consensus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_former_communist_states_and_socialist_states
Socialism in the 20th century started out as an ideal term for debate of human rights of expression, minimum wage, trade unions, in the 1920s. The 1920s' ideal is how I was introduced to the concept of socialism in philosophy and history, and same goes for Bernie Sanders too, probably.
Socialism changes a lot by decade and Bernie probably associates socialism with the ideals of his father's generation from the 30's, rather than the recent historical corruptions of socialism used by Venezuela, Germany, Burma, Romania, Libya and others.
During the time he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders referred to himself as a socialist, and was referred to that way in the press. (source: Wikipedia). In his youth, he had been a member of the Young Socialists of America. To my knowledge, that group was socialist, not social democrat, or democratic socialist.
His political thinking may have evolved over the decades, or he may have found a new way to package the same ideas. However, it remains true that the label socialist is one that he took on himself and not one that was pinned on him by detractors.
When he describes his overall vision today, he often cites the model of Nordic Socialism as the kind of society he is aiming for. However, it's important to realize that the Scandinavian countries are not socialist, and their leaderships are quite insistent about this. Most of industry remains under private ownership, albeit heavily regulated.
Tax rates on companies are comparable to similar rates in the USA, considered a capitalist economy. So if that is what he is really aiming for, it would be appropriate to refer to him as something other than a "Democratic Socialist". It's unclear exactly what is meant by Democratic Socialism in any event. It depends on who you ask.
It's because he is a socialist, according to both the definition of socialism and himself.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, socialism is
A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
Democratic socialists are still socialists, hence the name. Sanders refers to himself as a democratic socialist. While Sanders doesn't advocate for the complete elimination of private property, he certainly does advocate for increasing government control (whether by outright ownership or regulation) of the means of production and is, therefore, a socialist.
Sanders has long described his ideology as democratic socialism, including at a town hall as recently as last night:
“Me, when I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m talking about are human rights and economic rights,” Mr. Sanders said.
While he doesn't openly advocate for communism, he does certainly openly advocate for 'socialism.' Of course, there are many varieties of socialists across the world and being one type of socialist doesn't automatically mean you support all of the policies of others types of socialists. I believe Sanders would reject the idea of single-party-rule as in most communist regimes, for example.
American political taxonomy is a bit different from that of other countries, so it should come as no surprise that you're puzzled.
The primary axis for American political discussion is the degree of power wielded by the central (Federal) government. The (rather ill-defined) central position is shared by Democrats and Republicans, and advancing to the Left the major divisions are: Liberal/Democrat (the two are often interchangeable), Socialist, and Communist. While Europeans have a larger, more nuanced, list of variations, the US 2-party system has pretty well subsumed all of the European distinctions into Liberal/Democrat or Socialist. Within the US, socialism is generally seen as a system which gives enormous power to the central government without the totalitarian flavor of Communism. Consequently, for Bernie to identify himself as socialist simply means that he has advocated a greater role for the Federal government than is currently accepted by the Democratic party. Within the usual usage of the terms, he could have chosen either ultra-liberal or socialist. He picked socialist. Bernie made his political debut as mayor of Burlington, Vt in 1981, and it was at that time that he described himself as socialist, and the term was picked up by the newspapers. Given that these were the Reagan years, this did help to give him a well-defined political identity. To the amazement and relief of the city, he was apparently a good mayor, and did not let ideology get in the way of running the city. The relief was not shared by the Republican and Democratic leaders in Burlington, who were unable to get him out until he chose to run for the House of Representatives.
At about the same time, the US (including Vermont) went through a condominium conversion boom/bust cycle, and the rise of awareness of genital Herpes. This gave rise to the Burlington political joke:
Q - Which one of the following items does not belong on this list?
A) Gonorrhea B) Bernie Sanders C) Herpes D) A condo in St. Albans
A - Gonorrhea. You can get rid of Gonorrhea.
Most of the other questions try to deal in facts, which is not connected to the reason people are shouting the word "socialism!" from the hill tops. This is nothing more than name-calling. To many ordinary people, there was many years of anti-communist and anti-socialist propaganda to allow for cold war spending. During those years, an ideology developed that was distinctly anti-socialism, and anti-European.
So when anyone suggests any kind of social program, the knee-jerk reaction by those on the conservative side of the spectrum is to apply as many "curses" to the candidate that they dislike. I have heard Sanders called a communist, socialist, even a anarchist. Those who call people "bad names" don't really care that communism and anarchy are mutually exclusive; they are nothing more than bad names.
When those who are on the progressive side of the spectrum in the US, they also engage in mindless name calling. For example, I have often heard Republicans called Fascists, Nazis and even heard Trump called a "Dictator". These are mindless bad names that are not at all technically correct, for a variety of reasons that any thinking person can surmise.
Because it's generally meant as a pejorative, and not meant to be an accurate description, to paint him as some kind of enemy of US society, using a traditional Cold-War antagonist description.
US audiences are generally pretty ignorant on what the terminology means, so they're apt to hear that, repeated over and over again, and enough of them will dismiss him as some kind of Lenin-follower instead of finding out what policies he actually advocates. If you ask your average person who would fall for this to describe the differences between socialism, communism, Marxism and the totalitarian implementations of those as practiced by Stalin and Mao, you'd never get past explaining the question to them, let alone getting an answer.
In this case the context is the US. Hence any left-leaning candidate is callest d a socialist without any finer nuance being understood.
On the left, he’s called a socialist because he belongs to that broad spectrum of ideas. On the right he’s called a socialist, because in the history of US ideology, socialism is an idea you should be afraid of, never mind that Roosevelt, usually seen topping the lists of the great US presidents (apart from Lincoln), compared to the neoliberalism of today, would be seen as hard left now.
Socialism is in effect an umbrella term that encapsulates all types of socialism. For example:
- Social Democracy.
- Collectivist anarchism.
- Anarchist communism.
These types of socialism are radically different. For example, you have anarchists, who advocate having a small government or none at all, similar to what libertarians advocate. Which is in stark contrast to Marxist-Leninists, who want a strong government, similar to fascism.
So calling Bernie a socialist is not incorrect. It's just not very specific. He himself refers to himself as a democratic socialist. So the only reason to keep calling him a socialist would be to try to associate him with communism (a.k.a marxism-leninism).
The definition of socialism is
Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.
Bernie Sanders wants free healthcare and free college, which means it is run by the government. When the government is providing the services of health and education, that is socialism. In the above definition, I assume goods also means "goods and services".
Saying that the government doesn't technically own the doctor or the professor is a semantic weasel argument. If someone cuts your brake lines and you drive over a cliff, they didn't technically murder you. In a system where a government is the sole buyer (monopsony) and can print money out of thin air, no clinic or college could reasonably compete without taking government money (crowding out) or disobey while taking government money. The government is effectively de facto owner. The same happens with monopsony private prisons. Quality suffers when there is no actual choice or competition.
protected by Philipp♦ Feb 22 at 18:26
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