In American politics, there is a burgeoning love that almost daren’t speak it’s name. A much maligned term has resurfaced since May 26th, 2015 when candidate for the Democratic Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders announced his intention to run: Socialism.

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A dirtier, more fear-inspiring word does not exist in the Conservative’s Vilification Handbook. ‘Socialist’ on the lips of any liberal-loathing right winger is a catch-all phrase to accuse someone idealising the same economic, moral, religious and philosophical evils as the leaders of the Soviet Union.

Sanders seems to be shouting down the hysterical hubbub that’s risen around the term since the Cold War, but his assertions of what it entails are tentative. What does he actually mean?

Socialism by the books

Topping Merriam-Webster most-searched terms of 2015 and still riding high in the charts is the term Socialism. Their definition: a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.

Speaking to Bloomberg Politics, John Ahlquist, an associate professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California at San Diego said:

“traditional socialism is a political-economic system that organizes the economy purely around the needs of the people. The basic idea is that production decisions and everything else are not organized around the desire to make a profit, they’re organized by a cooperative group to produce stuff that people think they need.”

Capitalism is positioned as socialism’s equal opposite, whereby the production goods and and provision services is open to be pursued for all opportunistic individuals, who enjoy any profits and suffer losses personally.

To elucidate both, take the example of healthcare. In the United Kingdom this is provided by the National Health Service. Largely recognised as one of the most successful healthcare systems in the world, the NHS is a compelling example of a socialism in action. The economy surrounding the product of healthcare is designed, regulated and provided solely by the government.

The US in comparison has a capitalist system whereby private organisations (mostly non-governmental non-profit hospitals) provide healthcare for the most part, while the state’s role is found in ensuring people have access to insurance (under the divisive Affordable Care Act or “ObamaCare”)  or covering the cost for specific groups and demographics (Medicaid and Medicare). Incidentally, under this system according the WHO, the United States spends more on healthcare per person than any other country in the world.

Amalgamations of the two exist, the healthcare systems in Ireland being one such example. Typically called a two-tier system, both socialist and capitalist models are accommodated here, whereby the state provides necessary, basic healthcare and the second-tiered private sector can provide faster and superior services at a cost.

Total socialism in it’s purest form doesn’t really exist anywhere in the world. The few times it has have been experiments in communism that have ultimately failed and/or led to horrendous results.

Thomas More’s Utopia was originally released in 1516 and this was where the first conceptions of socialism took form. Essentially mainstreaming many aspects of monastic life, More created a world which provided some of the innovations which would later underlie the ideology. There was no private property and no locks on the doors; Houses were rotated between the families every ten years; All goods were stored in warehouses and people requested what they needed; Agriculture was the most important job and everyone lived in the countryside, farming for two years at a time: the land was a welfare state with free healthcare. His work also provided a basis for many social liberties which would later arise: euthanasia was permissible by the state, priests were allowed to marry and divorce was permitted.


A few socialist projects based on these ideals were dotted throughout the following centuries (most notably at the hands of the industrialist turned social reformer Robert Owen), but these experiments never sustained. The first leader to ever erect socialism on a governmental scale was Lenin which lead to the rise of communism in Russia, and later the horrors of the Soviet Union.

Diet Socialism: Bernie’s Refreshing Own Brand

When he first entered congress in 1990, Sanders declared “I am a socialist and everyone knows that”. How much truth is there to this?

When questioned on the label (as he often is) Sanders steers away from dusty political theory and discussions of government ownership and supply control, in favour of a more inspiring, rhetorical course. In a speech at Georgetown University in November of last year, the Brooklyn-born senator gave an address detailing his vision of socialism for the United States. “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. [It] means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”

The arsenal which he has in this battle to reclaim the term is fairly impressive. In this lengthy address, Sanders outlined the New Deal, a program with which Franklin D. Roosevelt dragged the country out of the Great Depression and built a massive middle class:

“[FDR] saw tens of millions of its citizens denied the basic necessities of life…education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children… He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

And he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day… Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government…

FDR consistently ranks as one of the most loved of all American presidents. He remained in office for 12 years, bringing the country through the Second World War. Justifiably likening yourself to him in any way is very fine political PR.

new-deal-with-it“[A]lmost everything [FDR] proposed was called ‘socialist.’ Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was “socialist.” The concept of the ‘minimum wage’ was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as ‘socialist.’ Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work… were all described, in one way or another, as ‘socialist.’”

It’s a striking example. Each of these phenomena of everyday economic life were reviled by the right wing of the day. They were unfair impediments and interferences with the American Dream, whereby everyone was absolutely free to better their lives as much as they chose. The dream where what each person had was exactly proportional to how much effort or talent they exerted. This was a dream that did not accommodated for social and economic inequalities proliferated by the realities of greed, hatred, corruption, racism or misogyny.

Socialism & Social Democracy: Who is the Beau of Better Governance?

Pure socialism is, by today’s standards, radical. Often it is embroiled with the concept of Communism and seen as merely a transition state. Sanders and his ideology, in stark contrast, lie much closer to that of social democracy. Social democracy is, as Prof. Ahlquist puts it, the idea that “the elected government has a responsibility to ensure that the functioning of a market economy adequately provides for basic needs for everybody.” While socialism exerts an influence on it’s policies and ideals, social democracy doesn’t eradicate capitalism, but put instead places a strong regulatory system alongside it to ensures a minimum standard of living for all citizens.

If socialism is the bad-ass with whom one experiments with in bed, social democracy is the person to raise kids with. Sure, the social democracy can have characteristics of the former, but fundamentally it has realistic expectations of the world around it (some of which is inherently capitalistic) and stability and a track record to back it up.

While Ireland could be described social democracy, the real golden child of the system is the Scandinavian model. Denmark specifically is the Utopia Bernie has in mind. The Danes have access to child care, state-guaranteed medical and parental leave from work, free education including third level (throughout which students receive a payment from the government), free health care and a generous pension, features Sanders is keen for all who will listen to remember. This is all made possible by high taxation, including a 25% tax on all goods and services, and a top rate income tax which is around 60%.

Denmark and United States are obviously incomparable for a number of reasons. America’s population, immigration patterns, production and exportation rates are all markedly different and have historically been facilitated by a strong tradition of capitalism.

What Bernie wants to show America however, and thereby make his case for presidency is that social democracies don’t eradicate capitalism, but create powerful regulatory systems to guarantee all civilians certain liberties and entitlements. Making the comparison for Vox in July last year, Sanders said

“In virtually all of those [Scandinavian] countries, health care is a right of all people and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free… people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours.”

It’s obvious what Sanders seeks. Whether it’s called socialism or social democracy is now irrelevant. Bernie is trying to end the unrequited love between his fellow citizens and the ideals which he believes will serve them best.

In his Georgetown address he advocated making third level education accessible for all Americans, and cited the regulation of prescription drugs. He spoke about raising the minimum wage gradually to $15 per hour, ensuring no one working 40 hours a week could live in poverty. He lamented the shame of his country being the only in the world where a working class woman cannot stay home for a reasonable period of time with her new-born. Sanders wants to expand Medicare to all Americans, meaning that free healthcare would be guaranteed for everyone, while private healthcare can operate too. He wants tax hikes for the wealthy and large corporations and stricter regulations on campaign funding.

He seems to live by what he preaches. He has been consistent in his political leaning throughout his life, leads a frugal life and even flies economy class (sitting in the middle seat). Most notably, vast amount of what he has raised for his campaign has been from small-donations.

Young Love and the Dizzying Delegate System

From the ongoing polls and his latest successes, it plain to see Sanders has cleaned up the term “socialist”.

Labelling himself so has had the stark dual function of outlining his vision and othering himself from the establishment (i.e. the baggage-laden Hillary Clinton). He has positioned himself as the outlier, a tactic that has proven successful throughout this race on both sides (as demonstrated by the right-wingin’, bitter-clingin’, fear-spoutin’, immigrant-oustin’ demagogue Trump).

One demographic in particular is falling hard and fast for the septuagenarian senator and his vision for America. In May 2015, a YouGov national survey found that 37% of millennials reported being “comfortable” or “enthusiastic” with the prospects of a socialist candidate. By January of this year this had increased to 43%, as compared to the 32% of under thirties who favoured capitalism.

Younger voters clearly aren’t the only ones however. Sanders enjoyed a virtual tie with Clinton in the Iowa caucuses back in early February (the first test of public’s opinion for both Republican and Democratic party candidates) and enjoyed a 22-point landslide over her in the New Hampshire primary (the first state vote for a party presidential nominee).

The Democratic party nominee is chosen by which candidate earns the greatest number of “delegates”. Ordinary members of the party voting in primaries, divvy out a state-by-state allotted number of “delegates” to candidates running. Across the 50 states, there are more than 4,000 of these delegates to be won. “Super-delegates” are, in contrast, elected officials and representatives and they pledge themselves to either candidate over the course of the campaigns – the pledge of each super-delegate being equal to one state-divvied delegate. The number of super-delegates and voted-for delegates are added together, and the candidate who attains a majority receives the party nomination.

Following the slew of primaries held across the United States on March 1st’s “Super Tuesday”, his Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton has 1,034 delegates to Sanders’ 408. With nearly all super-delegates having pledged themselves and 3,300 delegates yet to be apportioned by party-populace vote, this lothario of the left-wing is still very much in the race.

It’s a Love Story, (to) Bernie just say Yes!

Socialism in the United States has taken some interesting sidesteps over the years. Once a slur for apparent Soviet sympathy, the term had now come to embody the ideals of governance ensuring equality and equity, as enjoyed in developed countries all over the western world. As Sanders sees it, the time to adopt socialist-style policies has never been more pressing:

Today, in America, nearly 47 million Americans are living in poverty and over 20 percent of  children, including 36 percent of African American children, are living in poverty. 29 million Americans have no health insurance… and with the United States paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, 1 out of 5 patients cannot afford to fill the prescriptions their doctors write. We have more people in jail than any other country and countless lives are being destroyed as we spend $80 billion a year locking up fellow Americans. The bottom line is that today in America we not only have massive wealth and income inequality, but a power structure which protects that inequality.

From Sanders’ successes so far, and the turnaround in voter sentiment, it would seem the case for socialism in the United States has never been made so well. Having argued the ideology as one which has the interests of mankind at its heart, it would seem the love between socialism and the American people has never been so mutual.


Illustration: Sarah Moloney