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.

Examples of the media referring to Sanders as a socialist: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

  • 42
    It might be helpful not to force edit an American perspective ("democratic socialism" = "socialism") into OP's question, when the OP is asking from a German point of view, especially when OP makes a distinction between "social democrat" and "'socialist' and 'communist'."
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 19:02
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    Perhaps you could explain, for the benefit of Americans and other non-Europeans, exactly how a social democrat differs from a socialist? When I do a search, the first thing that pops up is the dictionary definition: "a supporter or advocate of a socialist system of government achieved by democratic means". So it would seem that social democrats are simply a subset of socialists, no?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 18:39
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    @jamesqf Wikipedia definition: "Social democracy [..] supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist economy." Early social democrats tried to achieve socialism by working within the system, but they eventually abandoned the goal and accepted market economy. Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 8:34
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    @Jouni Sirén: Yes, so that makes social democrats a variety of socialist, no? I don't, incidentally, see why a market economy is incompatibe with socialism: it's simply a more efficient method of arranging an economy than Communist-style central planning.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 18:02
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    @jamesqf In the European usage, socialism is defined by the intent to replace market economy with socialist economy. If someone accepts private ownership of the means of production, they are not socialist in this sense. Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 22:16

15 Answers 15


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.

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    Did Saunders first use the term before any opponents called hm that? Sources for either would help.
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 15:59
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    I think calling his use strictly wrong is overstating the matter. Here's wikipedia's (supported by sources) definition of socialism: "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" [emphasis mine]. Expanded banking, environmental, & healthcare regulation, increased government spending and welfare, these are all things that could be construed to be at least partially "socialism" under this definition.
    – mbrig
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 17:01
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    @mbrig The current Wikipedia article does not have that definition, and I can't find it in the recent revision history either. Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 1:54
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    Also note that many socialist or communist nations, even tyrannical authoritarian ones, have always slapped "Democratic", "Republic", or "People" in their name (e.g. "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (North Korea), "People's Republic of China", "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)"). To many right-wing Americans, "democratic socialism" just means "socialism with an extra dash of deception by pretending to be democratic". The general rightwing feeling being, "if you have to convince me you're democratic by adding it into your name, you probably aren't."
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 3:05
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    @JouniSirén ah my bad, that's the definition google is popping up in its little info box, which they usually crib from wikipedia, but in this case, seems to be some kind of dictionary they aren't linking. My apologies
    – mbrig
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 9:47

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[189] projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations[190] FBI records show that 85% of COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed "subversive",[191] 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.

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    I downvoted for the simple reason that this is a needlessly longwinded answer that fails to point out Bernie Sanders is called a socialist because he calls himself a socialist. The fact that he isn't a socialist according to several previously well understood definitions doesn't negate the fact that this term is used to describe himself because he uses it.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 16:45
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    @Joe, I think you are confusing 1) when he doesn't make a pedantic argument against the "socialist" label and 2) how he describes himself as "democrat socialist". For example, Sanders saying (1) "The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist" and (2) "what democratic socialism means to me" both in this MSNBC article. I tried to make this point in my answer, but perhaps you have a suggestion for how I can clarify. msnbc.com/msnbc/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 17:03
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    @Joe, that's beyond pedantic, and demonstrably false. If you call yourself an anti-capitalist, it doesn't mean folk should conflate you as a capitalist because anti-capitalist has "capitalist" in the name. As an American, it really bums me out that we're generally so ignorant of semantics and actual meanings in things. Bernie could call himself anything and the right would decry him as a socialist due to his platform. And no, I'm not a leftist. I'm simply an American dude who's tired of ignorant rhetoric in my country's politics. Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 20:08
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    And the fact that you found this answer too "long winded" is exactly WHY it's so tiresome talking to most other Americans about politics. Nobody wants foundational information, just an echo chamber that tells them they are right all the time. Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 20:09
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    @Joe isn't fox mainstream then?
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 11:35

It seems likely that people call him a socialist because he's self-identified as one on multiple occasions.

Sander Socialist


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.

Washington Post: Bernie Sanders is an avowed socialist. 52 percent of Democrats are OK with that.


  • 1
    Comments deleted. This is not the place to discuss the nuances between social-democracy, socialism, anarchy and communism.
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 21:34
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    The only right answer.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Mar 6, 2019 at 9:17

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.

  • 2
    Interesting quote, but do folks actually frequently refer to his 1987 quote?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 8:09
  • @gerrit I noticed this quote all over non-public Facebook comments the day he announced. If I search "Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production" on google I find 167 hits, and on the top page at least, they all are about Bernie Sanders.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 13:04
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    I would consider 167 Google hits to be really a rather small number.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 14:43
  • @gerrit I changed “frequently” to “sometimes”.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 11:33

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.


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.

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    "Most of industry remains under private ownership, albeit heavily regulated." That statement is why many Americans laugh when Europeans claim they aren't socialist. Just because the government "lets" people own companies, the government is still essentially dictating how the companies operate through the heavy regulation. There's not a lot of difference between that and the government outright controlling the companies. It's like a parent who "gives" their teenage child a car but reserves the right to take the car away from them at any time. IOW, the child doesn't really own the car.
    – Dunk
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 22:56
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    @Dunk I like the car metaphor. Albeit Id say if we were to try to use it to describe the situation in US, it would be like a parent who sells their teenage child a car and as long as they pay for it every month they get to do whatever they want with it, yet eventually the child comes back and starts arguing about the payment amount, why he is responsible to pay for repairs and why does he need to take care of safety of other road users.
    – Lukali
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 8:37

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.

(emphasis mine)

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.

  • By the Oxford definition, it would follow that the US currently operates under socialism, at least partially, since it does regulate the means of production, distribution, and exchange to some extent. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 0:16
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    @Rohmer Indeed. That holds by any reasonable definition of socialism, not just Oxford's.
    – reirab
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 16:23

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.

Usage frequency of various political terms according to Google Ngram Search:

Ngram chart

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    How precisely is the ngram supporting any of the argument you gave? Not that I assume that it would be wrong; I just feel the diagram is just a show-off that adds no substantial information. Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 23:35
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    I don't understand this answer. Venezuela and Germany?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 8:31
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    It shows the meaning of the word socialist! the political philosophical word of the 1920's and 30's was very prevalent around in 1938 as it was corrupted by the NAZIs, and then it peaked in the middle of the cold war, so it demonstrates why a german would see him as a "social democrat at best". Venezuela and Germany have both had repressive socialist autocracies relatively recently, as has Cuba, Russia, China, and many others. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 13:15
  • Venezuela is not and was not socialist, says your Wikipedia link. Socialism and social-democracy are important in Germany, because of 19th century inventions of political theory and criticism by Marx and the like. That makes your Nazi-angle quite non sequitur. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 13:49
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    I completely agree with you that the meaning of the word varies by place and time. However, I wouldn't try to explain the divisions between socialists and social democrats in Germany with the experience of Nazi Germany. More relevant: a) the Spartacist Uprising in 1919 b) Divided Germany (SED in East Germany, SPD in West Germany)
    – user23205
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 8:58

I'm actually going to go against the general consensus here, but please hear me out.

I believe that Sanders is an actual socialist. He wants the US to catch up with the rest of the developed world first but wants socialism as his end goal. This kind of ideology is called reformism.

Also, a reminder that socialism is a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned and regulated by the community as a whole, rather than by private individuals.

Early Career:

In this Guardian interview, Sanders talks about the impact that the moving of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles had on his Politics. He elaborated on his feelings in his 2016 book, Our Revolution:

O'Malley's [Owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers] devastating decision to rip the Dodgers out of Brooklyn in order to pursue greater profits on the West Coast was, I suspect, one of my first observations regarding the deficiencies of Capitalism (Pg 13).

While attending the University of Chicago, Sanders was a member of the Young People's Socialist League. He wrote about what being in YPSL taught him, in Our Revolution:

It wasn't just that racism, war, poverty, and other social evils must be opposed. It was that there was a cause and effect dynamic and an interconnectedness between all aspects of society. Things didn't just happen by accident. There was a relationship between wealth, power, and the perpetuation of Capitalism (Pg 18).

He began his political career as a member of a socialist party in Vermont called the Liberty Union Party.

In 1969, he wrote an article entitled Cuba: The Other Side of The Story, where he argued that the mainstream media was distorting what was really going on in Cuba.

He even expressed excitement about the Cuban Revolution.

According to Politico, he wrote in 1976:

I believe that, in the long run, major industries in this state and nation should be publicly owned and controlled by the workers themselves

He put out a documentary in 1979 about the American Socialist, Eugene Debs.

In 1980, he became very involved in the Socialist Workers Party.

As Mayor of Burlington:

The following image depicts him speaking at a 1983 meeting of the Socialist Party USA and this WNYC piece goes over what he said.

Sanders speaking at a meeting for the Socialist Party USA

Sanders stated, during the 80s, that:

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.

He spoke about alienation and the necessity of worker ownership at the 1985 Progressive Entrepreneurship Forum

In this 1985 interview, he defended the gains of the Cuban Revolution

He wrote the following in a now defunct magazine called Vermont Affairs, in 1986:

All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small ‘d.’ I believe in democracy, and by democracy I mean that, to as great an extent as possible, human beings have the right to control their own lives. And that means that you cannot separate the political structure from the economic structure...So if you believe in political democracy, if you believe in equality, you have to believe in economic democracy as well ... You reach a certain age when you start reading reasonably widely, and you find ideas that reflect your gut feeling about something...You find what you’re looking for. I had that feeling when I first read Eugene Debs, for example. If you read what Debs said about the goals of socialism, it’s no different from what I’ve been saying. That all socialism is about is democracy.

From the 1988 dissertation of Steven Soifer, a professor of social work at the University of Memphis, who wrote about Sanders’ time as mayor of Burlington, Bernie is quoted as saying:

What being a socialist means is that you hold out a vision of society where poverty is absolutely unnecessary, where international relations are not based on greed but on cooperation where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire.

In 1989, he clearly stated his status as a Socialist

As a Congressman:

In 1991, he gave a talk at a DSA meeting and spoke about how, in the short term, he believes that the US should catch up with the rest of the world, in terms of Social Democratic policies, but that we should ultimately move towards worker control of the economy, as a long term goal.

He advocated worker ownership in Congress in 2007.

He gave a speech in 2013 about worker Co-ops


He advocated worker co-ops in point 3 his 12 point economic plan, put out during the primary.

He denied being a Capitalist on CNN, in a debate.

In this Reddit AMA from the Primary, he expresses a clear intent to move towards worker control.

Sanders' Reddit AMA

He wrote the following in his 2016 book, Our Revolution in a section about giving workers control over the Workplace:

This type of greed, and ruthless Capitalism is not an economic model we should be embracing. We can do Better; we must do better...Employee owned enterprises boost morale, because workers share in profits, and have more control over their own work lives. The employees are not simply cogs in a machine owned by someone else...The Workers in these operations understand that when employees own their workplaces, when they work for themselves, when they are involved in the decision-making that impacts their jobs, they are no longer just punching a time clock. They become more motivated, absenteeism goes down, worker productivity goes up (pg 260-261)

He introduced legislation to expand co-operatives nationwide in 2017.


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.

  • I definitely agree that the US's rigid two-party system is a major factor. Why make fussy distinctions between political ideologies who all vote for the same party anyway?
    – dan04
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 2:27
  • @dan04 - In some senses that's a fairly profound statement. The dominant 2-party system has its drawbacks, but it also prevents coalitions of small(ish) factions from gaining power and then falling apart when one or two get upset, thereby triggering a new election. Perhaps the closest we get is like the 2016 election, when Nader was accused of spoiling a Clinton victory by pulling off enough Democratic (and thereby Clinton) voters to prevent her victory. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 7:54
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    @WhatRoughBeast Nader? I believe you're thinking of the wrong election. He wasn't even a candidate in 2016. The highest third-party candidate (3.28% popular vote, more than all others put together) was Gary Johnson, who, being a libertarian, likely attracted more votes from conservatives and libertarians (who traditionally support Republicans more than Democrats) than from liberals. Jill Stein (Green Party, very liberal) was in 4th place with 1.07% of the popular vote. Evan McMullin (a Republican) and Darrell Castle (conservative) also had 0.54% and 0.15%, respectively.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 19:30
  • @WhatRoughBeast Without third parties, Trump would have almost certainly won by wider margins, not narrower ones.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 19:30
  • @reirab - not sure you can make that assumption. If someone who was anti-Clinton was sour enough on Trump to "throw away" their vote, third party, there is no indication that they'd bother showing to vote for Trump if there was no third party option. There's nothing to suggest those third party voters automatically cast their votes for the next closest thing if the third party is not there. This is kind of like the accepted myth that Perot hurt Bush vs Clinton, which has been repeatedly debunked. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 15:32

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.


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.


Socialism is in effect an umbrella term that encapsulates all types of socialism. For example:

  • Marxism–Leninism.
  • Social Democracy.
  • Mutualism.
  • Collectivist anarchism.
  • Anarchist communism.
  • Anarcho-syndicalism.

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).

  • Seems like anarchy would be closer to a Libertarian construct than a socialist one, wouldn't it? Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 4:39
  • @PoloHoleSet Depends. There are different types of anarchism as well. Anarcho-capitalism is pretty much synonymous with libertarianism. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 4:40
  • Seems to me that any kind of collective ownership of "commons" or other entities would necessitate a degree of structure contrary to anarchy, in a general sense. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 4:44

Context matters.

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.


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.

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    Public goods can be provisioned without the government owning the means of production. "Free college" and "free healthcare" proposals typically consist of the government paying for things on behalf of the consumer, not the federal government owning every college and hospital in America.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 18:31
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 4:47
  • Wow this is my lowest scoring, highest point question! For every negative vote (-2), the positive votes (+10) outweigh the negatives for a net gain. Keep 'em coming! I'd have to get 5x the number of downvotes as upvotes to lose points.
    – Chloe
    Commented Mar 6, 2019 at 21:31

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