Bernie Sanders Is a Democratic Socialist Not a Communist, Here's the Difference

As Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has surged in the polls, President Donald Trump has begun to up his criticism of the independent senator from Vermont.

"I think he's a communist. I mean, you know, look, I think of communism when I think of Bernie," Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity for an interview broadcast this weekend.

Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr. reiterated the criticism in an interview with Fox & Friends on Monday morning. "I kind of want to run against a communist in Bernie, but he's also got a very motivated base," the president's eldest son said.

While Sanders self-identifies as a democratic socialist, which many right-wing lawmakers and pundits often conflate with communism, the two political ideologies actually have major differences. The idea of democratic socialism has also been gaining support in the U.S., which is evidenced by the recent rise of progressive lawmakers such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, among others.

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (i-Vermont) greets people during a stop at a campaign field office on February 2 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Joe Raedle/Getty

"Communism does not respect or esteem formal or procedural liberal democracy," Dr. Jean Louise Cohen, a professor of political thought and contemporary civilization at Columbia University, told Newsweek. Cohen noted that communism in practice, has "embraced the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat" while claiming to "foster social justice rather than political democracy."

"Democratic socialists obviously esteem democracy and social justice and reject a need for a trade off," she said. "They seek to enhance liberal democracy with social democracy and a plurality of forms of participation."

Dr. Eileen Hunt Botting, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University, told Newsweek that the ideology of communism means there would be "no private property, and no class distinctions." Botting explained that democratic socialism, conversely, does not do away with private property or all economic class distinctions.

Democratic socialism "aims to use democratic government to promote a more fair and egalitarian distribution of social goods and opportunities among all people in a society," she said.

Many right-wing critics have argued that the ideas espoused by Sanders and other democratic socialists in Congress would lead to the collapse of the U.S. economy, and transform the country into a struggling state similar to South America's Venezuela. However, Botting and Cohen said this assessment was inaccurate, pointing out that Sanders' proposals align more closely with those already implemented by wealthy northern European countries.

"Sanders, like Elizabeth Warren, is far closer to Scandinavia than to Venezuela on his democratic socialist proposals, such as 'Medicare for all,'" Botting said.

Cohen said that Sanders' policies are "closer to those in Sweden than in Venezuela or anywhere in the communist world." She pointed out that this would easily be understood by "anyone in Europe."

Omar, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speaks alongside Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar during a press conference to introduce college affordability legislation outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on June 24 SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

"But the U.S. never had social democracy, so Americans don't understand this," the professor said.

As Sanders has explained on the campaign trail, wealthy countries in Scandinavia already offer things like free higher education and universal healthcare, while they have also taken major steps to curb the use of fossil fuels and have turned to renewable energy sources. The senator's stated political goal is to use the democratic process to transition the country more toward such standards while reducing growing social inequality.

"I believe in a vigorous democracy," Sanders said during a CNN Town Hall last April.

While socialism and communism both criticize capitalism and the inequality it generally fosters, they propose different solutions to address the issues in society.

"They both are critical of full-fledged market capitalism, but socialism–in the form of social democracy and democratic socialism–does not reject markets or property or profit but seeks to regulate these for purposes of social justice," Cohen said.