Bernie Sanders

“We have made real progress in making millions of Americans understand what socialism is about,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

2020 elections

In a POLITICO interview, the 2020 hopeful previews a major speech Wednesday defending democratic socialism.

Bernie Sanders wants to change Americans’ minds about socialism.

The Vermont senator is set to deliver a full-throated defense Wednesday of democratic socialism — a label that has helped inspire a movement to elect him president while at the same time raising persistent doubts about his electability. In an interview with POLITICO, Sanders said his goal for his speech at George Washington University is to explain “what democratic socialism means to me, and in fact what democratic socialism means to me is a continuation of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked about.”

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Sanders will argue that it’s time to complete the “unfinished business” of the New Deal and ensure economic rights for Americans. Those include, he said, the right to a decent job, affordable housing, and dignified retirement. He’s also expected to echo Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous remarks that the United States has “socialism for the rich” and “rugged individualism for the poor.”

“What I’m talking about tomorrow is not particularly radical,” Sanders said. “But we have to put it on the table and make sure everyone appreciates why economic rights are human rights.”

The address comes as Republicans are attacking Sanders as a communist sympathizer and planning to make socialism a centerpiece of the presidential campaign regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. The Republican National Committee is issuing a series of news releases titled “Bernie 💚commies.” And POLITICO and other outlets have scrutinized Sanders’ diplomatic visits to the Soviet Union and Nicaragua in the 1980s, which are being weaponized by his critics.

But far from distancing himself from the controversial term, Sanders intends to own it. His aides said the speech is the opening gambit of an effort to upend the conventional wisdom about Sanders. His unapologetic liberalism, they say, is precisely what makes him the best candidate to beat Trump in a general election.

“It’s important not only for the senator explain what his philosophy is and what he believes to be the major social ills in this country,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, “but also the fact that he strongly believes that when you fight the oligarchy in the ways he’s going to lay out, that people respond to it and it’s good politics.”

Sanders’ biggest hurdle is persuading older voters — people who lived through the Cold War and have a far less benign take on socialism. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 28 percent of Americans over the age of 65 have a positive view of the term.

“I don’t think it’s a productive direction for him to take,” said a Pennsylvania Democratic elected official who requested anonymity. Referring to some of Sanders’ recent campaign moves in the state, the official added: “Going to Bethlehem, I thought, was great. Going on Fox News and killing it on Fox News was good. But this leftward push … is not going to pick up any new voters in Pennsylvania. You’re only going to lose that way.”’

But the address could potentially bring more younger voters into the fold, some of whom have recently strayed from him, according to polls. A majority of young Americans have a positive view of socialism, and a recent survey for Axios found that 55 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 54 would prefer to live in a socialist country. Since Sanders’ 2015 speech, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a dominant figure on social media, and democratic socialists have won seats in state legislatures and city councils throughout the country, including in Pennsylvania.

“We have made real progress in making millions of Americans understand what socialism is about,” said Sanders, reflecting on what has changed since his address in 2015.

Sanders’ speech comes as he’s getting squeezed by two rivals — frontrunner Joe Biden from the center and fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren alongside him on the left. Biden has defied predictions he’d quickly implode and Warren, who calls herself a “capitalist to my bones,” has nipped at Sanders’ heels by improving her standing in national and early-state polls.

“While Elizabeth Warren has been rising in the polls and releasing plan after plan, I think Sanders is trying to go back to the base and say, ‘Here’s how left I am,’” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who advised Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign. “And maybe the part unsaid is, ‘This is where I differ from Warren.’”

Asked if their view of democratic socialism is something that differentiates him from Warren, Sanders wouldn’t bite: “Elizabeth Warren will run her campaign. Elizabeth is a friend of mine, so I’m not going to comment on Elizabeth’s campaign.”

Sanders, in the interview, blamed the media for propagating a misleading perception of democratic socialism by equating it with “authoritarian communism. And if you know my record, I have been a fierce opponent of all forms of authoritarianism whether it existed in the Soviet Union, whether it exists in China, whether it exists in Saudi Arabia, wherever it exists. I believe in a vibrant democracy.”

“I must tell you that I find it a little bit hypocritical for people to try to suggest that I don’t believe in a democracy at the same time as you have Trump supporting and loving, apparently, Mohammad Bin Salman, a dictator of the worst kind in Saudi Arabia, and Putin in Russia,” he added.

The speech is a coup for socialists, who were once written off as fringe players in American politics. Sanders is far better known now than when he gave his last big speech on socialism four years ago, ensuring more people will watch.

“Sanders is giving this speech at a time when Trump and the Republicans are trying to paint all Democrats as socialists. I wish that were so!” said Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has endorsed Sanders. “Sanders knows what too many people inside the Beltway don’t care to know — that the Democratic politicians calling for Medicare for some and middle-of-the-road climate policy will lead us right into the jaws of authoritarianism.”

David Duhalde, political director of the Sanders-founded Our Revolution and a former deputy director for the DSA, added that the fact that Sanders is dedicating a second speech to democratic socialism “is really energizing for the thousands of DSA members who are working to elect him.”

Sanders will also use his speech to accuse Trump of loving “corporate socialism” and to bash his favorite boogeyman: Wall Street.

“In 2008, after their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior created the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression — with millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings — Wall Street’s religious adherence to unfettered capitalism suddenly came to an end,” reads a copy of Sanders’ prepared remarks provided by his staff. “Overnight, Wall Street became big-government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history — over $1 trillion from the Treasury and even more from the Fed.”