Bernie Sanders laid out a forceful argument for democratic socialism, the largely misunderstood political philosophy to which the Vermont senator ascribes, in a long-awaited speech delivered at Georgetown University Thursday afternoon.
Sanders drew parallels between his own views and those of beloved figures like Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope Francis in an attempt to impress upon the audience that they are already familiar with his philosophy, whether or not they realize it.
Programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the institution of the 40-hour work week, the abolishment of child labor, and the minimum wage, Sanders said, were all once denounced as socialist. “These programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class,” he said.
Sanders spoke of the fact that the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and cited figures that show median incomes for families and individuals have seen sharp declines over the last several decades.
He aligned himself with another vocal advocate for income equality, Pope Francis. “We need to create a culture which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money,” Sanders said. “We must not accept a nation in which billionaires compete as to the size of their super-yachts, while children in America go hungry and veterans sleep out on the streets.”
“So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” Sanders told the auditorium full of students, who’d spent hours waiting in the rain to see the presidential hopeful speak. “It means what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that ‘this country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.'”
“My view of democratic socialism builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, their elderly citizens, the children, the sick and the poor. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system that is corrupt, that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”
Though the speech was largely concerned with economic inequality, Sanders earned the most thunderous applause when he addressed issues of racism. “I don’t believe in special treatment for the top one percent, but I do believe in equal treatment for African-Americans who are right to proclaim the moral principle that black lives matter,” he said.
He also went off-script to criticize Donald Trump: “People should not be using the political process to inject racism into the debate. Donald Trump and others who refer to Latinos and people from Mexico as criminals and rapists — if they want to open that door, our job is to shut that door and shut it tight. This country has gone too far. Too many people have suffered and too many people have died for us to continue to hear racist words coming from major political leaders.”
As receptive as the audience at Georgetown was Thursday, Sanders is still waging an uphill battle. In June, a Gallup survey found that 50 percent of voters would not vote for a socialist, even if that candidate was generally well-qualified and had the backing of their party.
“The speech he is giving today has the potential to be one of those defining moments in a presidential campaign,” Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, predicted in his introductory remarks on Thursday. As of early Tuesday, however, it was still unclear if Sanders would deliver the speech at all; the day before his campaign announced the event at Georgetown, Politico reported the promised speech had been put on “indefinite hold.”
In a Democratic primary race in which it has at times been difficult to distinguish between candidates on some issues, Thursday offered one of the starkest contrasts yet between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Hours before Sanders took the stage, Clinton gave her own speech, explaining how she would systematically dismantle ISIS.
While Sanders, like Clinton, declared firmly the terrorist network must be defeated, he sounded a note of caution as well, saying the U.S. must be careful not to repeat the foreign policy blunders of its past.
Sanders, who throughout his campaign has emphasized how crucial grassroots political engagement will be in order to get him elected, closed his speech Thursday acknowledging the “significant alimentation from the political process” many Americans feel, and appealed to the students in the audience. “If you, as young people are prepared to engage in the political process, I know that there is nothing, nothing, nothing that we cannot accomplish.”