Bernie Sanders Grapples with the S-word

January 26, 2016, 6:27 AM UTC
Bernie Sanders Holds New Hampshire Town Hall Meeting
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, pauses while speaking during a town hall meeting at Timberlane Performing Arts Center in Plaistow, New Hampshire, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Sanders' presidential campaign on Saturday said it raised more than $33 million in final three months of 2015 with small contributions making up the majority of the donations. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer— Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bernie Sanders used the beginning of his closing argument to Iowa voters on Tuesday night to reckon with the “s-word.”

The Vermont senator makes no secret of the fact that he self-identifies as a democratic socialist and didn’t officially identify as a Democrat until he decided to seek the party’s presidential nomination in this election. Yet the moniker could still set some voters on edge, so Sanders, riding a new wave of momentum in the primary, seized an opportunity at a CNN-hosted town hall event in Iowa to offer his definition.

It boils down to a belief that income inequality has spun out of control and that the government has a responsibility to intercede and correct it. It means, he said, that “economic rights, the right to economic security… should exist in the United States of America.”

“It means there’s something wrong when the rich get richer, and almost everybody else gets poorer,” Sanders continued. “It means there is something wrong, and government should play a role in making sure that all of our kids, regardless of their income, are able to get a higher education.”

Clinton’s camp, increasingly nervous about Sanders’s progress erasing her lead in Iowa and padding his double-digit advantage in New Hampshire, recently signaled it would attempt to use Sanders’s exotic partisan identification to cast him as a fringe figure with radical ideas. The term itself has a European whiff typically anathema to voters. But Sanders on Tuesday leaned into it, expanding on his definition by explaining his proposals for expanding the social safety net and offering free higher education have already taken root, “in Scandinavia, and in Germany… So, what democratic socialism means to me in its essence is that we cannot continue to have a government dominated by the billionaire class, and a Congress that continues to work for the interest of the people on top while ignoring working families.”

Give Sanders credit for at least this much: He owns his ideas. He doesn’t try to leaven his harder-edged populist appeals with paeans to the entrepreneurial spirit or the power of capitalism to lift people up. Later in the event on Tuesday, he was unabashed in acknowledging that paying for all of his new proposed programs would require tax increases — not typically the kind of promise that endears a candidate to voters. And he affirmed as he has many times before that winning Congressional approval for such a sweeping agenda will first require no less than a political revolution, by which millions of Americans demand their elected representatives fall in line.

Democratic primary voters appear primed to reward that boldness. And many in Iowa, at least, seem disinclined to count him out for invoking the s-word. A recent Bloomberg Politics/ Des Moines Register poll found that 43% of likely Democratic caucus-goers viewed themselves as socialists, while only 38% self-identified as capitalist.

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