As with other political labels like conservative and liberal, the word socialism is also ill-defined and allows the person using it wide leeway in what it means. The fact that it is often paired with the word ‘democratic’ to create ‘social democratic’ or ‘democratic socialist’ adds to the ambiguity. In the US, the word socialist has been systematically demonized, though in other countries it is quite commonly used, especially in combination with the word democratic. For example, the official name for Sri Lanka is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,
Bernie Sanders is repeatedly asked what he means when he identifies himself as a democratic socialist and some of his supporters are confused about it, especially since for such a long time the label ‘socialist’ has been political poison. When pressed for specifics, Sanders often refers to the Scandinavian countries as models of what he means though that may not help much with the American public that may have only a vague idea of where Scandinavia is, let alone what kind of political and social systems those countries have. Interestingly, Sanders recently distanced himself even from capitalism and even Hillary Clinton did not unconditionally embrace that label, a sign of how political debate has shifted in the US.
Because the usage and understanding of the word has become so idiosyncratic, Sanders has decided, wisely in my opinion, that it is time to explain more clearly what he stands for and has announced that he will give a speech on the subject soon.
“What we’re probably going to do to begin with is hold a major speech in the not-too-distant future to define exactly what I mean by democratic socialism,” Sanders told a supporter in Iowa City who asked how he would counteract political attacks on his socialist views.
“To me, democratic socialism means democracy. It means creating a government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in the country,” Sanders said.
In an illuminating article that looks at the history or socialist and populist movements in US history, historian Wallace Hettle compares Sanders to another famous socialist in the US and that was trade union leader Eugene V. Debs who ran for president five times as a member of the Socialist party.
Sanders cites Eugene Debs as a political hero, but times have changed over the last century. The Vermont senator is no Debs, nor could he be. Debs led a landmark Pullman strike in 1894, briefly paralyzing the entire railroad industry, and landing himself in jail. During World War I, he was thrown into prison again, this time for speaking in defense of an anarchist trade union, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW. He received a million votes for the presidency in 1920 while still locked in a cell.
Today, the most relevant difference between the two men is that Debs refused to join the Democratic Party, which he saw as capitalist. Instead, he ran for the presidency five times as a member of the Socialist Party. He is supposed to have declared, “I would rather vote for something I want and not get it, than to vote for something I don’t want and get it.” An eclectic thinker, he identified with the Marxist tradition, but he also voiced an indigenous American radicalism from Thomas Paine, and the radicals of the Gilded Age such as the Knights of Labor. Debs presidential runs aimed to overthrow the system, not to work within it.
One has to admire Sanders’s intense focus on the issue of inequality. Since Sanders has described himself as culturally Jewish and not religious, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel asked him whether he believed in god and whether he felt such a question was even important for Americans to know. Watch how Sanders manages to avoid giving a direct answer and turn that question into why it is bad to have so much inequality in America