Bernie Sanders is a social democrat, not a socialist

There’s some confusion about whether Bernie Sanders supports capitalism.

During the first Democratic debate, correspondent Anderson Cooper asked Sanders, “You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?”  Sanders 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.”

That didn’t bother me, because my reading was that Sanders wasn’t saying he opposes all capitalism. It’s just casino capitalism that he opposes.

But there is evidence that Sanders doesn’t consider himself to be a capitalist at all.  According to Bernie Sanders Isn’t Socialist Enough for Many Socialists, which appeared on

On Meet the Press on Sunday, the Democratic presidential candidate was asked by host Chuck Todd whether he was a capitalist.

“No,” Sanders responded. “I’m a democratic socialist.”

But then the article goes on to record the laments of socialists such as Stephen Durham, of the Freedom Socialist Party, who said, “He isn’t an anti-capitalist! He is for reforming capitalism, not changing capitalism.”  That’s what I thought Sanders wanted, and I’d approve of that: reforming capitalism.

Kathleen Parker of  the Washington Post also refers to Sanders’ declaration on Meet the Press that he is not a capitalist.  She says in The Sanders-Trump magical mystery tour,

That Sanders is a socialist [sic — he’s a democratic socialist] is no secret. He has said so often enough, and his proposed policies aimed at worker- and consumer-owned economic institutions confirm as much.

His answer was shocking, nevertheless, because surely no one hoping to become president would dare admit wanting to fundamentally change the nation’s economic system. A few regulations here and there, sure. But wholesale socialism, albeit alongside a political democracy, however that works?

This isn’t quite right either. Sanders isn’t a “wholesale socialist.” He’s a democratic socialist. But Parker’s point about “a few regulations here and there” — or a lot of regulations — is what I was expecting.

In short, I wish Sanders had said during the debate and on Meet the Press, “I believe in capitalism, provided it’s well regulated and fairly taxed. Unconstrained capitalism is brutal.”

After all, democratic socialist countries like those in Scandinavia have corporations, private wealth, and a market economy.  Nokia is Finnish.  Volvo is Swedish. But in Scandinavia the corporations are well regulated, and corporations are highly taxed. That’s precisely what we need for a humane, fair, and innovative society.


For I am a progressive Democrat, not a Socialist. I believe corporations should be regulated and taxed, not destroyed. Corporations are often efficient at innovating and at producing quality products.

What is democratic socialism? According to the wikipedia article, “Democratic socialism is a political ideology advocating a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, involving a combination of political democracy (usually multi-party democracy) with social ownership of the means of production.”

The Democratic Socialists of America website says,

Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.

Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible. 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.

Sigh. I’m starting to wonder if Elizabeth Warren would have been a better candidate to challenge Hillary.  Either that or Sanders should clarify what his economic ideology amounts to.

So I’m confused.  What exactly does Sanders believe?

The Washington Post reports, in What is a democratic socialist? Bernie Sanders tries to redefine the name, that Sanders said during a recent speech in New Hampshire, “What democratic socialism means to me, is having a government which represents all people, rather than just the wealthiest people, which is most often the case right now in this country.”

That meaning of democratic socialism is pretty general and inclusive. It would be compatible with regulated capitalism.

The article continues:

In this campaign, in fact, some observers believe that Sanders is even wrong to call himself a “democratic socialist.”

That’s because there are official Democratic Socialists — both in other countries and in the United States — and they generally want something more aggressive than he does. The Democratic Socialists in the United States want a system where workers or the government own factories and other means of production. (This is different from a communist system, in which the government owns everything in the people’s name.)

Sanders doesn’t want that. Instead, what he wants is to take existing federal programs — many established by Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson — and super-size them.

For example. Sanders wants Medicare for all.

“He’s not a democratic socialist,” said William Galston, an expert on domestic politics at the Brookings Institution. “He’s a social democrat. Seriously.”

Social Democrats, a separate entity in the field guide to leftists, are generally more moderate. By those definitions, then, Sanders is actually making his own life harder, by mislabeling himself.

This seems right to me. I wish Sanders would be clearer — and more strategic — about his choice of words.

Leave a Reply