Bernie Sanders’ ‘Democratic Socialism’ Speech Shatters Myth That He Can’t Withstand Right-Wing Attacks From Trump

Kevin Gosztola
Jun 13 · 6 min read
Screen shot from Senator Bernie Sanders’ live stream of his speech at George Washington University (Source)

A common refrain from media pundits, as well as Democratic Party strategists, is that Senator Bernie Sanders could never be elected president because he identifies as a democratic socialist. He is too vulnerable to right-wing attacks from President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

But in a speech at George Washington University, Sanders showed he is equipped to respond to such attacks and may even view attacks as valuable opportunities to promote his agenda for working people.

Hours before the speech, CNN correspondent Ryan Nobles said Sanders’ problem is that “socialism itself, that” overarching umbrella term, is something that a lot of Americans are uncomfortable with. Can he make that case in a two-hour speech, especially when Donald Trump is somebody that speaks in one or two-sentence sound bites?”

Host Kate Bolduan additionally suggested that Sanders’ support for democratic socialism makes him more vulnerable to Trump’s pejorative nicknames or labels than other Democratic presidential candidates.

Yet, the speech — which lasted about 45 minutes, not two hours — flipped the script. Sanders attacked Trump for supporting socialism for corporations and the richest one percent in the United States while opposing policies and programs that could lift up poor and working class people.

As Sanders outlined how corporate America loves socialism when it works for them, he mentioned, “If you are the Trump family, you got $885 million worth of tax breaks and subsidies for your family’s housing empire that is built on racial discrimination.”

“When Trump screams socialism, all of his hypocrisy will not be lost on the American people. Americans will know that he is attacking all that we take for granted: from Social Security to Medicare to veterans health care to roads and bridges to public schools to national parks to clean water and clean air.”

“I am reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor,’” Sanders added. “And that is the difference between Donald Trump and me. He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful. I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.”

Sanders went beyond his typical stump speech, where he outlines specific issues and what plans he would fight for if elected president, and directly dealt with the issue of red-baiting by giving a brief overview of its history in U.S. politics as it relates to efforts to prevent the implementation of social programs that can address human needs.

“I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word “socialism” as a slur. But I should also tell you that I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades — and I am not the only one,” Sanders declared.

He recalled how Republican President Herbert Hoover once said Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was a “disguise for the totalitarian state.”

After President Harry Truman proposed a national health care program, “the American Medical Association hired Ronald Reagan as their pitchman.” The AMA suggested White House Staff were “followers of the Moscow party line.”

When Newt Gingrich was a prominent Republican in Congress, he referred to President Bill’s health care plan as “centralized bureaucratic socialism.” The conservative think tank known as the Heritage Foundation has argued the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a “step towards socialism.”

Even Democrats have subscribed to this brand of McCarthyist politics. In 1936, former Democratic New York Governor and presidential candidate Al Smith said in a speech about FDR’s New Deal policies, “Just get the platform of the Democratic Party and get the platform of the Socialist Party and lay them down on your dining-room table, side by side.”

Sanders used a quote from President Harry Truman, who had his own history of anti-labor politics but appropriately distilled why elites attack socialism:

Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.

Additionally, Sanders consciously framed the issue of democratic socialism as an issue of freedom, a favorite buzzword of the Republican Party. He put his politics into universal terms, “What does it actually mean to be free?”

Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?

Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drug you need to stay alive?

Are you truly free when you spend half of your limited income on housing, and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200% interest rates.

Are you truly free if you are 70 years old and forced to work because you lack a pension or enough money to retire?

Are you truly free if you are unable to go to attend college or a trade school because your family lacks the income?

Are you truly free if you are forced to work 60 or 80 hours a week because you can’t find a job that pays a living wage?

Are you truly free if you are a mother or father with a new born baby but you are forced to go back to work immediately after the birth because you lack paid family leave?

Are you truly free if you are a small business owner or family farmer who is driven out by the monopolistic practices of big business?

Are you truly free if you are a veteran, who put your life on the line to defend this country, and now sleep out on the streets?

To me, the answer to those questions, in the wealthiest nation on earth, is no, you are not free.

Having framed his campaign as one committed to fighting for freedom, he introduced his idea for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights similar to what FDR proposed.

“While the Bill of Rights protects us from the tyranny of an oppressive government, many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires,” Sanders asserted.

Sanders listed off the basic rights he will fight for — the right to a decent job that pays a living wage, right to quality health care, right to a complete education, right to affordable housing, right to a clean environment, and the right to a secure retirement.

The speech went well beyond educating American voters on the fact that their government already has socialist programs, like Medicare, to tamp down the stigma attached to his politics.

It acknowledged there is a class war in America. As Sanders said, “The top one percent own more wealth than the bottom 92% and 49% of all new income generated today goes to the top one percent. In fact, income and wealth inequality today in the United States is greater than at any time since the 1920s.”

Political elites like Trump and the robber barons of American industries are constantly lobbying the government for the redistribution of wealth upward, whether that means bailouts, tax cuts, or other forms of corporate welfare.

The Sanders campaign recognizes if President Donald Trump wants to talk about handouts to so-called freeloaders at the bottom of society they must force Trump to confront the rampant freeloading among wealthy people and the heads of powerful corporations. He bets voters will be more offended by their conduct than the conduct of poor and working class people who depend upon the few social safety net programs available to them in order to survive.

Using Sanders’ framing, any attacks on policy proposals aimed at establishing these rights are attacks on the right of Americans to live in freedom in the United States, and what was a widely perceived weakness suddenly becomes one of his campaign’s core strengths.

*To view the full speech, go here.

Kevin Gosztola

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Journalist. Writes about politics & film. Managing editor of Shadowproof.com. Twitter: @kgosztola