Real Talk: Bernie Sanders Isn’t Much of a Socialist

Progressive favorite Bernie Sanders has long referred to himself as a “democratic socialist,” a fact that many people who express opinions about politics for a living believe could hurt his chances of winning the general election, should he become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. During Tuesday night’s debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper decided to grill the Vermont senator on this point, which led to one of the more interesting exchanges of the evening.

Cooper: Sen. Sanders, a Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. How can any socialist win a general election in the you United States?

Sanders: We’re going to win because we’ll explain what it is. What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent own 90 percent—almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong today in a rigged economy that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that when you have a baby, we’re not going to separate you from your newborn baby because we are going to have—we are going to have medical and family paid leave like every other country on Earth. Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

At that moment, Hillary Clinton decided she might be able to draw some contrast between herself and her nearest challenger.

“I think what Sen. Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have,” she said. “But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America, and it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing.”

The odd thing here is that, despite his preferred nomenclature, Bernie Sanders isn’t really all that much of a socialist. Yes, the man is certainly on the left edge of mainstream American politics. He would like to raise taxes significantly on the wealthy, to spend more on infrastructure, to break up large Wall Street banks. He’d like to make public colleges tuition-free, but he isn’t pushing to eliminate private universities. Fundamentally, the man isn’t really running on an anti-capitalist platform of nationalizing private industry. The one exception, you could argue, would be his stance in favor of single-payer health care—that would amount to a government takeover of health insurance. But that would also basically bring the U.S. in league with decidedly capitalist nations such as Canada and Great Britain.

In the end, left writer Jesse Myerson, himself a bona fide socialist, put is most simply in Rolling Stone: “For now, the proposals at the core of his platform—for the most part very good—are standard fare for progressive Democrats.”* That comment was from July but still holds.

Which brings us to the Northern Europe comparison. Typically, policy types refer to Scandinavian nations as “social democracies,” because of the robust social safety nets in countries such as Norway, Sweden, and, yes, Denmark. But it’s not as if these places are antagonistic toward capitalism and business—by some measures, they’re about as entrepreneurial and innovative as the United States (at least if you adjust for the size of their economies). Saying we shouldn’t emulate Denmark because we want to preserve America’s spirit of industriousness, as Clinton suggests, is a bit strange.

Anyway, Sanders’ platform isn’t so much socialist as more progressive than what most American politicians typically espouse. The countries he admires are “social democracies” that make plenty of room for capitalism. That’s all.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic primary.

*Correction, Oct. 14, 2015: This post originally misspelled Rolling Stone contributor Jesse Myerson’s last name.