In a speech on Thursday at Georgetown University, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders addressed the biggest question that has dogged his campaign since its start: what exactly is the “democratic socialism” that he espouses, and what role would it play if he were elected president?
Sanders offered examples from a few of the great leftwing heroes of the 20th century, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson.
“[Democratic socialism] means building on what Franklin Roosevelt said when he guaranteed basic economic rights for all Americans and it means building on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said when he said in 1968 — and I quote — ‘this country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.’”
Sanders also took aim at Wall Street, castigating the financial industry for spending $5 billion in the 1980s on political lobbying and campaigns to get themselves deregulated — only to get bailed out years later when the sector imploded during the financial crisis.
“It is time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just for Wall Street billionaires and large corporations,” he said, also noting that while young people, especially young people of color, are often saddled with police records for marijuana possession, bank presidents who oversaw the financial crisis were not jailed or prosecuted.
Sanders emphasized not only that democratic socialism is good for America, but that it is not “an incredibly radical idea.” He cited policies like universal healthcare in Western democracies like France and Germany as examples of the political ideology.
Sanders also took time to differentiate his philosophy from classical Marxist socialism.
“Remember this — I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production,” he said. Though democratic socialism is a distinct ideology with very different ideals from Marxism or Leninism, many Americans hear “socialism” and immediately picture secret police and farm collectivization.
Sanders is currently running around 25 points behind rival Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. There is just over two months until primary and caucus voting begins. If he’s going to take down the Clinton campaign juggernaut, Sanders is going to need to continue to talk up democratic socialism and hope people are willing to listen.