Rethinking America, Richter Scale

Bernie Sanders Is No Socialist

Social democracy would have been an easier label to defend – and more accurate.

Credit: Andrew Cline


  • Sanders would be running away with the 2016 nomination if he had called himself a social democrat.
  • Social democrats believe democracy, not socialism, can solve social challenges.
  • Democratic socialists push public ownership of resources and a government of the working class.
  • How is Sanders a socialist while running on Harry Truman’s 1945 goals outlined to Congress?

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has proven himself to be a surprisingly formidable candidate in the Democratic primary for President of the United States.

Unlike his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he has also proven to be near pitch-perfect in terms of his political communications.

There is, it would seem, just one big thing that is anything but pitch-perfect and that has certainly contributed mightily to hold him back with regard to capturing the nomination: His proud self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”

Democrats who otherwise agree with his agenda, but who remain fearful that this label could cost the party the White House, have chosen to stick with Secretary Clinton.

It is not a label that Sanders could shake off easily, given that he has identified as a “socialist” for so many decades. That genie cannot go back into the bottle. In that sense, it is probably better to embrace it, explain it and hope for the best.

But it is odd that he has identified as a socialist for so long, given that he is far from being a Socialist.

Is Sanders actually a social democrat?

In the European – and particularly the postwar German – political tradition I come from, there would be no question that Sanders is, in fact, a “social democrat.” That is not a radical or controversial label in the least.

These days in fact, he would qualify on many (though not all) issues as a middle-of-the-road member of Angela Merkel’s CDU, the largest party in the German government (and supposedly right-of-center).

Germany aside, most of Europe’s major center-left parties have been social democratic – not socialist, democratic or otherwise – for nearly 70 years, if not well over 100.

Social democrats believed they could use government, selected by democratic elections, to achieve social improvements via reforms of (or expansions to) government aid programs and regulation of the marketplace and big business. Democracy, properly harnessed, and not a socialist state, would fix social ills.

Democratic socialists, by contrast, believed in pushing explicitly socialist goals via democratically-elected governments – goals such as widespread public ownership or nationalization of resources and a government explicitly of the working class.

They made a point of distinguishing themselves from Eastern Bloc “fellow travelers” or interwar radicals by emphasizing ballots over bullets as the means by which socialism would eventually be achieved.

There are, of course, blurred areas between democratic socialism and social democracy. Public provision of universal goods such as healthcare and education can be found in both, although the precise mechanisms for reaching them may be different.

Flashes of these elements can be seen in the Sanders platform, but they are still far from radical or truly socialist.

Lest we forget, Germany’s arch-conservative founder, Otto von Bismarck, introduced universal health insurance in Germany back in the 1880s. The United States only caught up a few years ago.

Senator Sanders also shares the convictions of class-based politics and the beliefs in the importance of popular political action outside of the legislative branch that characterized democratic socialist movements in postwar non-communist Europe.

Changing definitions

Today, as in the United States, the European labels have shifted ideologically somewhat. Social democrats there often occupy the centrist, market-oriented political space once firmly held by “liberal democrats,” who are an endangered species.

In the United States, these are the economic neoliberals of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. For the 2016 election, they have turned coat, claiming a right to share the label of “progressives” without much of the structural reform agenda to warrant that claim.

Similarly, European leftists have accused Social Democratic Parties of abandoning social democracy for market-oriented programs while keeping the label.

Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, Angela Merkel’s predecessor as Chancellor of Germany and an SPD man, certainly executed many structural reforms.

In Britain, there is a fierce intra-party struggle within Labour between its neoliberal social democrats – the Blairites – and its more leftist social democrats – including party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But Labour, even in Corbyn’s wing, is certainly a social democratic party today, rather than socialist and Marx-inspired, as it once was.

Was Truman a Socialist?

Likewise, it is difficult to see how Senator Sanders qualifies as a socialist while essentially running for president in 2016 on the platform outlined to Congress in September 1945 by President Harry Truman.

Truman’s program, laid out in the days after Japan’s surrender in World War II, is surprisingly relevant to 2016.

These positions and goals included unemployment reforms, labor standards, full employment, non-discrimination in hiring, improved labor relations, jobs for veterans, jobs for economically weak regions, housing for all, city planning, research investment, responsible taxation, support for small business, advancement opportunities and healthcare for veterans, investment in public works, conservation of national resources and much more.

Truman was the height of mid-century U.S. social democracy, but he was not a socialist.

Was Sanders a socialist long ago?

Senator Sanders was perhaps a democratic socialist when he began seeking offices in the early 1970s, initially fruitlessly.

Even in the 1980s, after he began to achieve some electoral success, Sanders certainly displayed far more empathy than most Democrats for the revolutionary socialist movements of the third world as they fought U.S.-backed right-wing paramilitaries.

At no point, however, has Bernie Sanders pushed the goals of socialism through his elected offices, whether as Mayor of Burlington, or Congressman, or as Senator.

Rather, Sanders made himself known for identifying space for – and securing – policy compromises and amendments where the democratic process could be harnessed to adopt policies benefiting all of society, including the working class and small business.

That, in essence, is America’s version of social democracy, and it was once far more mainstream in U.S. politics than it is today.

Playing catch-up

Sanders is proposing a “political revolution” to catch the United States up to its social democratic peers a half-century ago. The United States being behind the curve does not make Sanders a socialist.

Moreover, his effort to make sure that the concerns of the lower-income half of the electorate be considered and addressed with more than lofty rhetoric and not forgotten after the elections are over does not represent an act of socialism.

It just makes him a lower-case-d “democrat” – with some social improvement interests.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter, from Berlin, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

Responses to “Bernie Sanders Is No Socialist”

Archived Comments.

  1. On February 27, 2016 at 5:27 pm Dustin Neumann responded with... #

    Great article . Thank you

  2. On February 27, 2016 at 7:36 pm lisa responded with... #

    I’m a Sanders supporter, and plan to share this article, if I may, with a few people who are unclear about what “social democrat” means. Thank you.

  3. On February 28, 2016 at 4:19 am Farshad Farrokhzad responded with... #

    Democrats who think that way deserve the status quot and their Hillary, though I must confess that I choose her over Republican, except for Ron Paul, any day of the week.

  4. On February 28, 2016 at 6:56 am 20eric responded with... #

    Just shows how easily American workers are hoodwinked by big business! It’s moderate socialism that deliverers the good life styles and working conditions European workers enjoy and can afford! In America it seems the workers get what big business is willing to give them and they meekly accept it.

  5. On February 28, 2016 at 9:39 am ShootEvrythg . responded with... #

    Sanders says he’s a diet-pepsi socialist. His supporters are socialists. His supporters say he’s a socialist. But then when you point out how horrible socialism is, all of a sudden Sanders isn’t really a socialist.

  6. On February 28, 2016 at 12:39 pm James Maxeiner responded with... #

    A long-needed comment. It helps explain why Sanders calls himself a socialist when he seems more a mainstream social democrat. Still astonishing though, is that he associates his policies with Europe at all. That’s more courage. For long relating US legal proposals to foreign ideas has been the kiss of death in the US, even when that which “Europe” is aiming for is what what many here are also aiming for. England suffers the same affliction. Those that are not aiming for that, would not be comfortable with the mainstream German conservatives, i.e., CDU and even the CSU.

  7. On February 28, 2016 at 7:52 pm The Chairman responded with... #

    Socialism is just a more efficient way of paying the bills. No big deal.

  8. On February 29, 2016 at 8:14 am Brent responded with... #

    Great article, very convincing. I will stop using the label “socialist” to describe Sanders (even if Sanders himself continues) and start using the more accurate label “social democrat.”

  9. On February 29, 2016 at 11:08 am Nightfalcon responded with... #

    I like to second the differentiation made in the article by Stephan Richter. From my perspective, a typical german / european perspective, Sanders just emphasizes social welfare does not come for everybody w/o state intervention, but also let no doubt that an open and free market where people have equal chances is needed too. From my point of view he stands very firm on “democratic” ground. He might be a good president, but for sure he is different than the current political establishment of both parties. I hope democrats take the chance to nominate him, he might give the US the right impulse to get a better balance between the poor and the rich.

  10. On March 1, 2016 at 3:55 pm Ron Brydges responded with... #

    Before running off and declaring that social democratic is preferable to democratic socialism bear in mind that it may be preferable for many enterprises to be under public ownership with a societal bottom line than market enterprises or private enterprise that has to be regulated at great cost and working to a corporate bottom line eg maximizing profits for rich share holders and overpaid corporate executives. .

  11. On March 20, 2016 at 9:17 am Mike responded with... #

    This is a very important distinction, it’s actually quite sad that Mr. Sanders–for whatever his reasoning–has decided to label himself a “democratic socialist”, which is actually a thing. As I understand it, this advocates a change to pure socialism (communism) from a democratic system, by democratic vote.

    I live in Canada, and like Europe, we have had a social democratic party here for decades, currently the provincial wing of the party runs the governments of Manitoba and Alberta (think Bernie Sanders as Texas State governor) and like Germany it was the movement that gave us universal medicare. This party is called the NDP – New Democratic Party. Like the article mentions, if Bernie were a politician running in this country he would be viewed as more radical than the typical NDP candidate–mainly for his proposal for free university education–but he would still fit the mold.

  12. On March 27, 2016 at 12:00 am notrupert responded with... #

    Reaganomic voodoo-poisoned idiots call our Hamiltonian and Keynesian policies, from Lincoln to Nixon, “socialist”, but they served us well (we in the US who work for a living). Here’s what Bernie means by “socialist”.

    “Alan Greenspan has proclaimed himself ‘shocked’ that ‘the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders equity’ proved to be an illusion… The Reagan-Thatcher model, which favored finance over domestic manufacturing, has collapsed. … The mutually reinforcing rise of financialization and globalization broke the bond between American capitalism and America’s interests. …we should take a cue from Scandinavia’s social capitalism, which is less manufacturing-centered than the German model. The Scandinavians have upgraded the skills and wages of their workers in the retail and service sectors — the sectors that employ the majority of our own workforce. In consequence, fully employed impoverished workers, of which there are millions in the United States, do not exist in Scandinavia.” – Harold Meyerson, “Building a Better Capitalism”, The Washington Post, March 12, 2009.