Bernie Sanders famously describes himself as a democratic socialist and is unusual among modern politicians in the enthusiasm with which he advocates for higher taxes on wealthy Americans. CBS moderator (and Slate columnist) John Dickerson questioned him about this issue at tonight’s Democratic debate, asking how high taxes would have to go to pay for Sanders’ many spending proposals. The Vermont senator didn’t name a specific figure in his response, so Dickerson followed up:
Let’s get specific. How high would you go inspect? You said before above 50 percent.
Said Sanders, to general merriment:
We haven’t come up with an exact number yet, but it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Which was 90 percent. I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower. But—but we are going to end the absurdity, as Warren Buffet often reminds us that billionaires pay an effective tax rate lower than nurses or truck drivers. That makes no sense at all. There has to be real tax reform and the wealthiest and large corporations will pay when I’m president.
For the record, it’s true that the top marginal income tax rate under Eisenhower was 90 percent, and the effective tax rate for the top 0.01 percent of earners in the last year of Eisenhower’s term was an astronomical-by-today’s standards 71.4 percent. On other measures by which socialism is defined in U.S. politics, though, Ike was probably not on Sanders’ level; he opposed single-payer health care and, while more moderate than the modern Republican party on a number of issues, was apparently known for appointing millionaires to his Cabinet. (Eisenhower also had to work with a Democratic Congress during most his term and said that all things being equal he would have personally preferred lower tax rates.)