The first question for Bernie Sanders in a Democratic primary debate was asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on October 14. By then, the senator from Vermont had climbed from obscurity to within 20 points of Hillary Clinton in national polls. “A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House,” Cooper said. “You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
“Well, we’re going to win because, first, we’re going to explain what democratic socialism is,” Sanders promised.
Fast forward more than three months to CNN’s January 25 town hall debate in Iowa, where Sanders is neck and neck with Clinton ahead of the February 1 caucuses. The first audience question came from a middle-aged woman named Gerry Ohde, an undecided voter.
“Some of your detractors have called you a socialist on occasions, and you don’t seem too troubled by that, and sometimes embrace it. I wondered if you could could elaborate on your definition of it,” she asked, “so that it doesn’t concern the rest of us citizens.”
Sanders jumped in to say, “sure,” as if to forgive her confusion. But Ohde’s concern is a sobering progress report for his campaign. For Sanders to achieve the “political revolution” he says is necessary for his radical vision to be realized, the media would have to facilitate a substantive, protracted discussion of whether socialism is a viable political identity. The public may very well reject whatever Sanders means by “democratic socialism,” but it would be an accomplishment for his campaign and American journalism if that decision came from understanding, rather than stigma.
Too often, Sanders hasn’t given a satisfying definition of what actually distinguishes his version of socialism, and journalists have missed chances to press him. Sanders says he wants to “demystify” socialism, but reporters have allowed him to try to do so by blurring lines, not explicating them.
Sanders is still 15 to 20 percent behind Clinton in national polls. Granted, national polls don’t say much about how a primary will play out, but they do reflect the influence of national media. Despite extensive analysis of Sanders’ socialism since he declared his candidacy last spring, it takes a sustained discussion to shift public opinion, especially about such a deeply entrenched bogeyman; the label itself is widely considered a disqualifier. Campaigning at a Des Moines pub on Wednesday, GOP contender Marco Rubio drew laughs when he said, “Bernie Sanders, he’s a socialist,” BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins reported. “I’m not attacking him. It’s not a slur. He’s, like, a card-carrying socialist!”
He is, indeed. A 1985 profile in The Atlantic carried the headline: “Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Mayor,” referencing his time in charge of Burlington, Vermont. In Congress, he caucuses with the Democrats and draws their fundraising support but maintains his status as an independent. Early in his presidential candidacy, Sanders embraced socialism to emphasize that he’s cut from a different cloth of liberalism. But while he demonstrates fierce devotion to principle, he’s a reluctant political philosopher, making it hard to pin down the intellectual foundation of his values.
In November, Sanders attempted to pull back the curtain in a major speech at Georgetown on “Democratic Socialism in America.” He began by describing many of Franklin Roosevelt’s reforms, from Social Security to Medicare, as socialist initiatives. He compared them to popular policies in European welfare states today. “This is not a radical idea,” he likes to say. He prefers to define socialism through examples of what it is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not—namely, unchecked income inequality. In that speech, Sanders offered only glimpses of a true definition: proactive, robust government initiatives to ensure economic and social justice and democratic participation.
The hang up for many Democrats, subsequently, is not whether Sanders is a socialist, but whether that’s actually a substantive distinction. “Sanders is a Democrat in every way but name,” Harry Jaffe, a Sanders biographer, wrote for Salon. Charlie Rose asked Sanders on his PBS program in October, “Does it simply mean you’re more liberal or more progressive than other candidates?” The host seemed determined to get to the bottom of this ambiguity, eventually pleading, “I’m the first person trying to argue you away from the idea that you’re a socialist.”
That month, on Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders if he was backing away from the socialist tag. “No, no, not at all, it’s not a question of …,” Sanders stammered in response. “Look, when one of your Republican colleagues gets on the show, do you say, Are you a capitalist?”
Of course not. American politicians are presumed capitalists, and it’s disingenuous of Sanders to challenge his own novelty. In the first debate, when Cooper asked Sanders if he’s a capitalist, the senator replied, “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.” Again, to point to a system run amok doesn’t clarify opposition to the system in principle. Cooper followed up: “Just let me just be clear. Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?” The surrealness of that question at a presidential debate in 2015, to which Clinton and Martin O’Malley predictably said no, shouldn’t be understated.
“How will you win a general election labeling yourself a democratic socialist?” NBC’s Lester Holt asked Sanders at the fourth debate earlier this month. Sanders blew by the question, returning to the trope of billionaires versus working people. Holt didn’t follow up.
When Sanders dismissed the practicality of reparations for descendants of racial injustice last week, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a searing condemnation. “What candidates name themselves is generally believed to be important,” Coates writes. “Is shy incrementalism really the lesson of this fortuitous outburst of Vermont radicalism?”
Every presidential primary features an assessment of what makes a “true” liberal and conservative. An alliance of “conservatives against Trump” in National Review last week indicates the intensity of that debate within the Republican party. But Sanders has reintroduced a political label that’s been dormant in presidential politics since Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas ran on the Socialist Party of America ticket 11 times collectively in the early 20th century. “Socialist” was among the most common descriptions of President Obama in his first term, Pew tabulated, clearly as a slur.
Carrying the socialism banner helped Sanders stand out. Now, as he becomes a serious contender, he may be trying to downplay the extent of that radicalism. To undo the taboo of democratic socialism, Sanders needs to be direct in explaining it to the media, and journalists must push back on ambiguities. Otherwise, his political revolution will be derailed by semantics.