WASHINGTON (AP) — If Bernie Sanders accomplishes nothing else this year, he wants people to stop being scared of his version of socialism.
The firebrand Democratic presidential candidate has long called himself a democratic socialist, out to rid the U.S. political system of the corrupting influences of "casino capitalists" and Wall Street greed.
But the meaning of democratic socialism is fuzzy to a lot of Americans, and even Sanders has acknowledged that it can conjure images of Soviet collectives and authoritarian rule. That notion is being stoked by some of Sanders' political opponents. Donald Trump recently said Sanders sounds "way beyond socialism" and "perhaps even a communist."
A look at what Sanders has had to say about democratic socialism over the years, and what the term does, and doesn't, mean.
SANDERS ON DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM:
—"All that socialism means to me ... is democracy with a small 'd.' To me, socialism doesn't mean state ownership of everything, by any means. It means creating a nation, and a world in which all human beings have a decent standard of living." —November 1990, to The Associated Press.
—"What does it mean to me? I want government to stand up for working people, for the middle class, rather than representing, as is currently the case in the United States, multinational corporations and wealthy people." —May 2005, to the AP.
—"I think we should look to countries like Denmark and Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people." —October 2015 Democratic presidential debate.
—"The next time that you hear me attacked as a socialist, like tomorrow, remember this: I don't believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production. But I do believe that the middle class and the working families of this country who produce the wealth of this country deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down." —November 2015 speech at Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service.
DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM IS ...
Jeffrey Isaac, an Indiana University political scientist, said in an email that democratic socialism aims to achieve change "by working through the institutions of a liberal, representative democracy, mobilizing citizens and voters, winning elections, and legislating social reform," not by imposing a dictatorship as Vladimir Lenin and his Soviet and Chinese followers believed.
Here's how the Democratic Socialists of America, a group whose membership is growing thanks to Sanders, defines the term: "a society where wealth is shared equitably and democratically by those that create it," says David Duhalde, deputy director of the group.
What exactly does that look like? Getting corporate financing out of elections, increasing grassroots participation in democracy, taxation to meet social needs, more worker ownership and control of businesses. "Workers would decide how their companies are run and operated, not just live under the tyranny of management that they often do today," says Duhalde. Ultimately, Duhalde says, the goal is "an end to capitalism."
Sanders doesn't go that far, his campaign assures.
"He has worked since the days when he was (Burlington) mayor with business groups in Vermont," says campaign spokesman Michael Briggs. "Private businesses thrive in other countries with democratic socialist values."
But asked during a Democratic debate whether he considered himself a capitalist, Sanders gave this reply: "Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little? By which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don't. I believe in a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires."
The defining idea behind Sanders' socialist bent is his fixation on fighting income inequality, says Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political scientist who has watched Sanders for decades.
"As socialists go, he's pretty mild," says Nelson. "Bernie's socialism is vanilla."
DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM ISN'T ...
"This is not socialism at the point of a gun where the Red Army comes in and takes over your country," says Nelson. "There's no collectivized agriculture. There's no nationalization of industry."
Sanders instead advocates a mixed economy, meaning one with both private and public enterprises. Currently, federal spending is projected to account for about 22 percent of the U.S. economy. Based on the Sanders campaign's own estimates, his proposals would increase that share to about 30 percent over 10 years, and probably more in later years, according to Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group.
Despite all of Sanders' talk about starting a "political revolution," all of those changes would have to be achieved through the legislative process.
Isaac says: "Sanders is running for president of the U.S. He is not organizing a vanguard revolutionary party intent on seizing power!"
Sanders sketches an ambitious agenda under the rubric of democratic socialism, including breaking up big banks, more progressive income taxes, government-paid health care for all, free college tuition for all, expanding Social Security benefits, 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and more.
"It's basically New Deal liberalism squared," says Nelson. "He's not going to destroy the capitalist system, but he wants a more equitable distribution, greater transfer of payments from the wealthy to the not so wealthy."
Another difference between Sanders and most socialists: Sanders has won more elections than he's lost. Most socialists in this country, says Nelson, would rather "lose elections and sit around coffee houses and complain about how the capitalist system is rigged against them. ... Heaven forbid they win an election and be obliged to govern."
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