Bernie Sanders Says He Believes In 'Vigorous Democracy' After Soviet Descendant Asks About Failure of Socialism

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner among 2020 Democratic presidential contenders who have declared a run for the office, took questions from college students Monday during a CNN Town Hall, including one where he was challenged on his views of democratic socialism.

Samantha Frenkel-Popell, a social studies major from California, and Harvard student, who posed asked Sanders the question, telling the senator that her family fled Soviet Russia in the 1970s to get away "from some of the very same socialist policies that you seem eager to implement in this country. So my question is how do you rectify your notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it?"

Sanders didn't hesitate before asking the Harvard student, "Is it your assumption, that I supported or believed in authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union? I don't, and I never have and I opposed it. I believe in a vigorous democracy, but you have asked me the question about democratic socialism, a fair question, and left me to answer it."

Sanders, who has used socialism as a rallying cry to more youthful voters in both 2016 and this campaign said, "there is something when the top 1 percent have more wealth than the bottom 92 percent."

Sanders went on to say he believes in the Bill of Rights, but that "it doesn't guarantee you economic rights. So Samantha, let me be very honest with you, I believe that in a democratic civilized society, health care is a human right. Government should make that happen."

Sanders drew applause from the students in attendance, and then he continued.

"I believe that every young person in this country, regardless of his or her income, has the right to get all of the education they need. That's why I have fought hard, with some success, to move toward making public colleges and universities tuition-free, and very substantially reduce student debt," the senator said.

"And I believe that there is something wrong in America today when you got millions of families, paying 40, 50, 60 percent of their limited incomes to put a roof over their heads. … We have to address the issue of grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality. The very, very rich are getting much richer, and the middle class is struggling with 40 million living in poverty.

"What democratic socialism means to me is we expand Medicare, we provide educational opportunity for all Americans, we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. In other words, government serves the needs of all people, rather than just wealthy campaign contributors."

In a follow-up question, CNN moderator Chris Cuomo asked Sanders why the senator no longer supported nationalizing energy companies, factories, banks and drug companies as he did in the 1970s.

"Look, I said what I said, and that is I want to live in a nation in which all people in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, can have a decent standard of living," Sanders said.