Why is it that Bernie Sanders is always called a "socialist"?

  • 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

    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'."

    Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question.

    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 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.

    @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.

    Democratic Socialist & Socialist eventually are the same if every vote is pro-socialist. The democratic part just let's people vote _against_ socialism when it's "gone too far" -- so having non-socialists voting against it in a country is the only way it's different.

    @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.

    @Jouni Sirén: Yes, but my point is that you could have a market economy with the state owning some or all enterprises, and allowing them to compete. OTOH, the socialist ideal is (at least as I understand it) to take the profits from enterprises, whether state or privately owned, and redistribute them to the general population.

    Well, he _is_ a socialist. Social democrats are socialists, just maybe not in the Marxian way (but Marxists don't have a monopoly on the interpretation of socialism, and neither should they. And I say this as an Orthodox/Western Marxist). If people think socialists are bad, then that's _their_ problem. A lot of FDR's, JFK's, you name it's, policies, could be characterized as socialist. For example, I really don't see why Bernie Sanders is more socialist than FDR.

    There are many European "socialist" parties that are social democratic and not at all socialist. For example, see France, Spain, Netherlands, Switzerland. Perhaps they were socialist 100 years ago but not today. This phenomenon is thus not limited to Mr. Sanders.

    @jamesqf That sounds more like market socialism, which is yet another concept. Anyway, my point was the divide between socialists and non-socialists is a key issue if one wants to understand the 20th century European left. The former wanted to abolish private ownership of the means of production, while the latter did not. Against this background, calling social democrats socialists makes about as much sense as calling Republicans libertarians.

    Hi, @SethFrkinRollins, are you strictly asking why other people call Sanders a socialist, or also why he himself calls him a socialist although his platform would be considered a social democratic or labor platform in Europe?

    @Jouni Sirén: But the question is not about understanding the 20th century European left. It's about why the American media (and apparently Sanders himself at times) calls Bernie Sanders a Socialist. The simple answer is that in American usage he IS a socialist. It's a language difference, just as both Europeans and Americans can each talk about football amongst themselves, but realize they're talking about entirely different things when they try to talk to each other.

    @jamesqf The question is why people call Sanders a socialist, when he is definitely not one from an European perspective. You asked the OP to clarify what social democrats are and why Europeans do not consider them socialists.

    @jamesqf The normal distinction is between Social Democrats on one hand, and socialists/communists on the other hand. Social Democrats have been fighting anti-democratic socialists (i.e. Socialists or Communists) for more than 100 years. There is no such thing as democratic Socialism, just as there is no democratic Fascism.

    I'm Canadian and even myself question the assertion.

  • Icarian

    Icarian Correct answer

    2 years ago

    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.

    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 The current Wikipedia article does not have that definition, and I can't find it in the recent revision history either.

    +1 He's a social democrat, no doubt. Which has its partial roots in socialism and thus Marx, etc., but only remotely by now. When you consider most European states are social democracies, it's hardly "communism" as Americans see it. Of course, the US is significantly more right-wing than most European nations, so the perspective is always relative to which side of the Atlantic you're on.

    The DSA link also states, "*Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. [...]While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives.*" - i.e. either government owned, worker-owned, or union-controlled. Sounds like socialism, just slightly less centralized.

    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."

    @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

    *Because of his (Sanders') mistake, the term's meaning has changed*. US politicians across the political spectrum, including the right, have referred to social democratic policy as "socialist" long before Sanders. It is at least equally plausible to argue that Sanders has re-appropriated the term.

    "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are calling themselves socialists too even though they're not" -- she is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America

    @JaminGrey You hit a nail on the head. Sanders calling himself a "socialist" shows that he sees no need to come up with excuses, soften or qualify his position before even being questioned. The technique is similar to how minority groups sometime reclaim/appropriate some of the slurs, thus preventing or lessening the impact of their derogatory usage.

    @mbrig No need to apologize. The definition you cited is correct and this answer is wrong. The definition you cite was placed on Wikipedia straight from the Oxford English Dictionary.

    @reirab By that definition, isn't the US already socialist? We regulate via democracy, which could easily be argued as by the community. I think the definition is too broad, if it only requires regulation.

    @Patrick In many ways, yes. The U.S. already has many socialist programs, as do most countries. Economies exist on a continuum between pure free markets and complete command economies (socialism being a type of the latter.) Few (if any) economies exist at exactly one end or the other. Socialists generally want to move closer to the command economy end, while capitalists want to move closer to the free market end. Bernie is decidedly the former. Of course, there are also other types of command economies, such as pure dictatorships.

    @reirab While I agree with your response, you are saying that essentially all countries are socialist (I don't know of any country with no regulation). Doesn't this kind of make the word meaningless?

    @Patrick Not really. The fact that something exists in different degrees doesn't make the term meaningless.

    @reirab Generally, that is true, but a label like "socialist" is usually applied in a binary manor. Here, the question is asking why Bernie Sanders is referred to as a socialist when he isn't. A country or a person is socialist or is not socialist.

    @reirab I think one of the issues in this conversation is whether someone or some country that has any socialist policies is a socialist. I would argue the answer is no. Therefore, the definition of socialism and the definition of socialist are not necessary 1 to 1.

    @reirab Therefore, I believe that although Bernie Sanders holds some socialist views (as do essentially all people), he is not a socialist.

    @Patrick Then you're using a different definition of 'socialist' from what most would use. The term 'socialist' or 'capitalist,' as I said above, is typically applied to those who advocate for moving a country's economic system toward one direction or the other. Advocating for 100% one or the other is not required (and, in practice, virtually no one does that.) A capitalist argues for pushing a country's (or region's, etc.) economy closer to the free market end of the continuum, while a socialist argues for moving it toward the command economy end. Bernie is definitely the latter.

    @reirab If you use that definition, someone who is a capitalist in one country would be socialist in another. Also, how would we then define a country as socialist or capitalist? Also, how do you define someone who is a strong advocate of private ownership (a capitalist policy) who also wants regulations in place to protect the people involved (a socialist policy)? Lastly, just to confirm, you are suggesting Bernie is a socialist because he lives in America, rather than somewhere lese where he might be a capitalist with the same views?

    @Patrick Yes, I think the classification very much does depend on the local context in which it's being used. But I'd also disagree with the terms being necessarily binary. There are definitely people who are more capitalist or more socialist than others. Because, like I said, almost no one fully supports one extreme or other other. Virtually everyone lies somewhere in between the extremes.

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