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February 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 4

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Is Sanders a Socialist?


by Dr. John R. Vile



The town hall meeting on January 25 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, featured the three leading Democrat candidates in a relaxed forum in which members of the audience posed the majority of questions. Because the forum featured only one candidate on stage at a time, the discussions were far less confrontational than prior Democrat or Republican debates.


One of the most interesting questions that a member of the audience posed to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders concerned his identification as a Democratic Socialist. What exactly did he mean by the term?


Sanders’ answer was as follows: “Well, what Democratic Socialism means, to me, is that economic rights, the right to economic security is – should exist in the United States of America. It means to me that there’s something wrong when we have millions of senior citizens today trying to get by on $11,000 to $12,000 a year from Social Security. It means there’s something wrong when the rich get richer, and almost everybody else gets poorer. 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.” Sanders proceeded to laud his plan for fully paid tuition to public colleges and universities and to compare his programs with those “in Scandinavia, and in Germany.”


Sanders’ answer muted the differences between the other two Democrat candidates and him. It sounded as if his programs differ in degree, but not necessarily in kind, from other liberal Democrat programs.


As one who encourages my students to use words that reflect general usage, however, I am not convinced of the adequacy of this answer. Political scientists use the term socialism to refer to a system, largely devised by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, in which the government takes over major means of production like transportation, banking, mining, and the like in the belief that cooperation works better than the free-enterprise system. Industrial ownership may be divided among workers’ cooperatives, but they generally are not owned by a single investor or group of investors. The Democratic modifier in Democratic Socialism identifies those who plan to implement public ownership through democratic rather than dictatorial means used by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.


Sanders’ answer clearly identified himself on the side of increased governmental expenditures for health, higher education, infrastructure, and other programs. What Sanders did not explain was whether he also believes that government should take over major industries or whether he simply uses the word socialism for its shock value. When he says socialism, does he merely refer to a souped-up version of modern liberalism, which combines progressive taxation (and Sanders clearly plans to raise taxes, albeit with the intent of lowering overall health-care costs) and public welfare with greater concern over the gap between rich and poor, or does he mean something more?


Sanders’ health-care plan clearly calls for a single-payer plan, which I take to be the government; Sanders specifically says that he hopes to eliminate private health insurance companies. I am uncertain whether this means that the government will employ all doctors and nurses in the country or simply that it will provide the insurance to pay their bills. I also want to know whether he plans on governmental ownership of all insurance companies or only those in the health sector. What about banks, railroads, steel mills, airlines, mines, hospitals, auto manufacturing, and other industries?


Sanders is articulate and passionate, especially when it comes to denouncing Wall Street. What I what to know is whether Sanders is a liberal in the guise of a socialist, or a socialist in the guise of a liberal?


Dr. John R. Vile is a Professor of Political Science and Dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. Contact him at


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