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Bernie Sanders: ‘We Have to Talk About Democratic Socialism as an Alternative to Unfettered Capitalism’

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Bernie Sanders has been talking about democratic socialism for decades, as a mayor, a member of the US House and a member of the US Senate. But now that he is a serious contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and now that more and more elected officials and activists are identifying as democratic socialists, President Trump and his Republican allies are attacking socialism as a threat to “liberty and independence.” On Wednesday, with a major address at George Washington University, Sanders is pushing back. He’ll explain that his vision of democratic socialism extends from the themes outlined in the 1944 State of the Union address where Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Arguing that the United States must finally recognize that “economic rights are human rights,” Sanders plans to outline a vision of democratic socialism as an alternative to a system that is organized to benefit a handful of oligarchs—including Donald Trump—rather than the great mass of Americans.

Sanders explained why it is important to discuss democratic socialism as the 2020 race fires up, in a conversation with The Nation’s John Nichols, who has written about the senator and democratic socialism is a number of books, including The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism (Verso).

BERNIE SANDERS: Let’s talk about democratic socialism.

JOHN NICHOLS: Where do you want to start?

SANDERS: OK, look, the bottom line is that, in 1944, in a not-much-remembered State of the Union speech, what Franklin Roosevelt talked about essentially is that we have a Bill of Rights in our Constitution that protects our political rights: our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, etc. All of that is enormously important if we are going to protect freedom in America from tyranny. But what Roosevelt also said in that speech, which was very significant and very profound, was this: we’ve got political rights, but we don’t have economic rights.

Now I’m paraphrasing a little bit—and this is a point that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made very often as well—but the point Roosevelt was making was that: it’s great that you have political rights, but what does that matter if you can’t afford to go to the doctor when you’re sick? What does it matter if you’re earning a starvation wage? What does it matter if you’re sleeping out on the street? What does it matter if you are 85 years of age and you can’t afford the prescription drugs that you need to ease your pain?

So what we are talking about, and what the definition of democratic socialism is to me, is making certain that economic rights have to be seen as human rights—not just political rights are human rights, which we believe strongly in; but economic rights are human rights, as well.

NICHOLS: What sort of economic rights are you talking about?

SANDERS: When we talk about that, we’re talking about the right to a decent job, a job that pays you at least a living wage. We’re talking about the right to quality healthcare for every man, woman, and child. Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. We’re talking about affordable housing. That means everybody in America should be able to live in decent, safe housing that is affordable—that is not consuming 40, 50, 60 percent of their limited income.

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