Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the nomination of the Democratic party as its next presidential candidate, said on October 18 that he will soon deliver a “major speech” on his definition of democratic socialism. According to the Washington Post, told listeners at private residence in Iowa “I think we have some explaining and work to do,” the Vermont senator told an audience at a house party here in the nation’s first caucus state, acknowledging that the term “democratic socialism” makes some people “very, very nervous.”
Sanders is officially an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. He frequently speaks out against what he believes is an American political system that favors the very wealthy – the “billionaires” that he denounced in the first Democratic presidential debate – even though he has not yet endorsed the government seizure of private property. He has called for free tuition at public colleges and universities, guaranteed family leave, a federal jobs program, repairing the national infrastructure of roads and utilities, as well as a single-payer health system.
In Iowa during the October 17-18 weekend, Sanders said he wants to see a recalculation of how the Social Security Administration figures cost-of-living increases, while he denounced an announcement by SSA that it would freeze retirement benefits in 2016 unless Congress decides otherwise. He promised that these are issues that will continue to be his focal points. He also promises to examine the cost of prescription drugs, while demanding an expansion of Social Security benefits that would be funded by eliminating the limit “scrapping the cap” on income taxes for those earning in excess of $250,000 per year.
Sanders’ political credentials appear to be quite clear. Before graduating the University of Chicago in 1962, Sanders belonged to the Young People's Socialist League – an adjunct of the Socialist Party of America. While studying in Chicago, he participated in the first student sit-in to demand racial integration of student dormitories. Sanders has long referred himself as a social democrat. The SPA changed its name to Social Democrats, USA in 1972 in an effort to distance itself from Soviet-style communism even though for decades it maintained its affiliation with the Socialist International.
Social democrats have had a checkered history ever since the 1970s. Under the leadership of Bayard Rustin, the Social Democrats USA pursued income inequality as a factor in the overall inequality of the African-American community in the United States. During the Carter administration, SDUSA came out in support of Solidarity – the Polish anti-communist labor movement that was an essential component of Poland’s break from the Soviet system. Both the Soviet Union and the Carter White House denounced the SDUSA’s position on Solidarity, arguing that it was an obstacle to the then-reigning policy of détente between the two superpowers. During the Reagan administration, SDUSA cooperated with the AFL-CIO to assist Solidarity. American labor unions, with SDUSA cooperation, provided funds to the Solidarity movement to resist the Polish communist government and Soviet overlords.
Throughout the 60s, Sanders was involved in movement for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, having joined the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1963, for example, Sanders participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He settled down in Vermont in 1968, where he managed unsuccessful campaigns for the governorship and the U.S. Senate. In 1981, he was elected mayor of Burlington VT in 1981. Sanders was re-elected to the mayoralty of the state’s most populous city. In 1990, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving in that at-large position until being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. In 2012, he was re-elected to the position with almost 71 percent of the popular vote.
In 1985, Sanders visited Nicaragua – which at the time was ruled by Sandinistas who were receiving support from Communist Cuba and the Soviet Union. Since the U.S. was supporting armed rebels arrayed against the Sandinista government, Sanders came in for sharp criticism from some quarters that questioned why a city mayor would involve himself in foreign affairs and favor a government that had been condemned by President Ronald Reagan as communist. The socialist mayor of Burlington was the sole government official from the United States at a rally in Managua marking an anniversary of the Sandinista overthrow of the pro-U.S. government under ousted President Anastacio Somoza. Sanders remained in Nicaragua for a week, interviewing locals and conducting a private meeting with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega for more than an hour. He wrote in a book he published later, Outsider in the House, "I will never forget that in the front row of the huge crowd were dozens of amputees in wheelchairs — young soldiers, many of them in their teens, who had lost their legs in a war foisted on them and financed by the U.S. government."
Sanders was one of 300 American supporters of the Sandinista revolution that attended celebratory rallies. At a news conference where he joined European socialists, Sanders said on the day of the celebration, "The real issue is a very simple one. Does the government of the United States of America have the unilateral right to destroy the government of Nicaragua because the president of the United States and some members of Congress disagree with the Sandinistas?"
When he married his second wife in 1988, the newly married couple joined a delegation from Burlington to visit its sister city in the Soviet Union, Yaroslavl. Burlington also had a sister city relationship with Puerto Cabezas – a Nicaraguan port town – that was sealed during the Sandinista government. It was during this time that the Sandinistas were arresting, torturing, and killing political opponents as well as critics among Catholic and Evangelical clergy such as Father Bismarck Carballo.
Sanders has long favored policies that echo those of European social democratic movements, especially in the Scandinavian countries.
Besides taking progressive positions on climate change, campaign finance reform, healthcare and parental leave, he has also been a champion of abortion and lesbian/gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the Patriot Act that was passed during the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. While he has expressed admiration for Pope Francis and the latter's appeal for aid to the poor, he has said that he is not particularly religious even though he was raised and confirmed in the Jewish faith as a boy.