Bernie Sanders Says We Already Have Socialism for the 1 Percent

Bernie Sanders leaves the stage after delivering a speech on "Democratic Socialism in America" to students at Georgetown University on November 19. Sanders briefly addressed foreign policy but focused on economic issues. Carlos Barria/REUTERS

Bernie Sanders claims he's not running for president to pursue "adventures" abroad but to fix America's problem with inequality at home.

The Vermont senator and his campaign want this presidential primary to focus on economics, but foreign policy and national security have dominated headlines since the attacks in Paris. During a speech Thursday at Georgetown University in Washington, Sanders stayed on message, attempting to explain that nasty "S" word that gets appended to his name.

In his view, America already has socialism—in the form of bank bailouts, tax breaks for the wealthy, trade policies that promote corporate profit and policies that punish the middle class. "It is time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street billionaires," he said.

For Sanders, this would mean a single-payer health system (it could take the form of an expansion of Medicaid, he said), paid family leave, free college education and other social programs that GOP presidential candidates have labeled "free stuff."

"I don't believe in special treatment for the top 1 percent," Sanders said. The Georgetown crowd—who in all likelihood represent the 1 percent, Sanders jokingly noted—received him with enthusiastic applause. However, Sanders has slipped in the Democratic primary polls since Vice President Joe Biden's announcement that he will not run for president, and he is struggling to remain the top choice of voters in New Hampshire, the second state in the early primary schedule.

Sanders faces a major problem in winning over voters who aren't young college students. After all, how does one sell socialism in a country where even liberal has become something of a pejorative word in certain quarters?

In his speech, he went directly to the origins of the American welfare state, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposed "Second Bill of Rights." The gist, as Sanders quoted, was that "real freedom must include economic security." That was a popular sell in the midst of the Great Depression, when Roosevelt revolutionized the federal government's role by introducing Social Security, unemployment insurance, work programs based in Keynesian economics and other items that were labeled "socialist" at the time.

"All of these programs and many more have become the fabric of our nation and, in fact, the foundation of our middle class," Sanders said.

He added, "Almost every idea [Roosevelt] introduced was called socialist." That included the concept of a minimum wage, which Sanders says should be raised to $15 an hour.

Many would agree he is correct in his view of history, but voters will have to decide if he's correct in his application of it. Few Americans like the idea of socialism because of its association with Communism, under which the state actually owns the means of production (think the Soviet Union). Free-market economics re-established its dominance in American politics in the period after FDR introduced his policies and after the introduction of Medicaid (a Lyndon Johnson program). After Ronald Reagan, who warned that universal health coverage was the path to Soviet-style Communism, it has become much more common for conservatives as well as moderates to embrace such policies as a flat (and regressive) tax, deregulation of financial markets and (under President George W. Bush) attempts to partially privatize Social Security.

Sanders recognizes that he needs an entire political movement to arise for his agenda to take hold. He's not asking his supporters for a revolution, but he is asking for something close to one: It took the Great Depression for the U.S. to embrace Roosevelt-style democratic socialism. Of course, the Great Recession of 2009 didn't produce any comparable development.

"Next time you hear me being attacked as a socialist, like tomorrow," Sanders said, "remember this: I don't believe the government...should own the means of production...but I do believe that the middle class, the working people of this country who produce the wealth of this country, deserve a better standard of living."