Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gave what his campaign had billed as a “major address on how democratic socialism is the only way to defeat oligarchy and authoritarianism” in D.C. on Wednesday. The speech he gave instead, standing at a podium at George Washington University with American flags lined up behind him, was about the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Because what’s not to love about good old (not socialist) FDR?
In his speech, Sanders suggested that the world is careening toward authoritarianism in much the way it was following World War I, when “deeply rooted and seemingly intractable economic and social disparities” in Europe were “ultimately harnessed by authoritarian demagogues who fused corporatism, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia into a political movement that amassed totalitarian power, destroyed democracy, and ultimately murdered millions of people.” The United States—“thankfully”—“made a different choice than Europe did in responding to the era’s social and economic crises.”
“We rejected the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler,” Sanders said. “We instead embraced the bold and visionary leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.”
And that’s all, the implication was, that the current leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is trying to do now. The only difference being that FDR never called himself a “socialist” or a “democratic socialist,” as Sanders proudly described himself throughout his speech.
That was the rhetorical pixie dust that Sanders, by necessity, sprinkled over his remarks. By shoehorning FDR’s New Deal vision into the umbrella of democratic socialism, Sanders tried to inoculate himself against the socialism attacks that, as he conceded in the speech, his opponents would use to sink him. That was the point of the speech, it seems: Sanders can’t pretend that he has never called himself a socialist, since he’s been doing so for decades. What he can do is try to define his “socialism” as an extension of the New Deal programs that voters know and love—even if they’re not really socialism.
Though working in a more dramatic historical arc that zigzagged from the 1930s to contemporary times and back again, Wednesday’s speech still bore the familiar traits of all Sanders speeches: an opening litany of statistics about wealth inequality, a roll call of enemies (Wall Street, insurance companies, the military-industrial complex), and his vision for arresting this societal free fall. In this speech, though, he didn’t just list various bills he’s introduced in the past. He organized his platform into something consciously resembling FDR’s 1944 Second Bill of Rights.
In his “21st Century Economic Bill of Rights,” Sanders is calling for rights to “a decent job that pays a living wage,” “quality health care,” “a complete education,” “affordable housing,” “a clean environment,” and “a secure retirement.” His campaign has been releasing, and will continue to release, he said, “detailed proposals addressing each of these yet to be realized economic rights,” whether that means a vastly expanded minimum wage, a Green New Deal, an enhancement of Social Security, or “Medicare for All.”
Most of these measures aren’t socialist, in the proper sense of the word, and many of his ideas overlap with those of various campaign rivals who do not use that word at all (though you could argue that his rivals are merely paying lip service to some of the more progressive items they’ve endorsed). The proposals could be described, accurately, as the application of New Deal principles to ease contemporary forms of wealth inequality, or as a turn away from the neoliberal politics that have dominated the Democratic Party since Reagan.
But they could also be described as a means of using government power to rein in capitalism—thus preserving it. That’s what FDR did, and that’s why many actual socialists hated him. Though Sanders is tinkering with one proposal that could resemble collective ownership of the means of production, it’s not the main thrust of most of his policy plans, which—like FDR’s—piss off capitalists while preserving the core of the capitalist system.
So why did Sanders, who said in the speech that he “and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word socialism as a slur,” deliver a speech defending socialism if his self-described “FDR-style” platform isn’t really even socialism?
The first reason is that the label of socialism is indeed more popular than the establishment taboo around it would have you believe. A recent Harris poll, commissioned by Axios, for example, found that “4 in 10 Americans say they would prefer living in a socialist country over a capitalist one,” including 55 percent of women between 18 and 54. That’s a lot of people who aren’t scared of the word socialism. Bernie Sanders would like their votes in the Democratic presidential primary.
But Sanders will also need the votes of those who are scared of the word, or at least scared of how their neighbors will perceive it, in a general election. And since Democratic primary voters are abnormally concerned about “electability” this cycle, he needs to reassure primary voters that his socialist label wouldn’t screw up the party’s chances of defeating Donald Trump.
One way he could do that would be to deny that he’s a socialist and start describing himself as, say, an FDR-style progressive. This would have the benefit of being accurate, at least according to what he’s willing to say in public. But it wouldn’t work on two accounts. He would lose the energy of his base that appreciates his socialist self-description, and lose a contrast with self-described capitalist and progressive presidential rival Elizabeth Warren. He also wouldn’t get away with it: He’s been calling himself a socialist for so long that there’s no way to turn back.
The other way, and the one that he chose on Wednesday, is to lean into the socialism label, and then retrofit it as FDR-style progressivism, parts of which, like boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour and expanding Social Security, poll quite well. Sanders might not be pitching proper socialism in his campaign platform, but the label is all his. And, to paraphrase his favorite FDR quote, he welcomes the label—and has to.