Who’s Buying What Bernie’s Selling?


On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders gave a prepared 45-minute speech about what democratic socialism means to him and why he believes it’s the best way forward for the American people.

Sanders’ speech, parts of which will undoubtedly become part of his 2020 stump speech as the primary campaign picks up steam, was a methodical, impassioned explanation of the power of progressive social and economic reform. It was also a history lesson about the legacy of FDR’s New Deal, and why those programs are worth revisiting in the modern age.

The speech revolved around a conflict that Sanders set up in his first minutes behind the podium, arguing that the world faces two paths it can go down. One of these, Sanders said, is oligarchy and authoritarianism, which is fed and reinforced by economic inequality and unrestricted capitalism. The other is what he defined as democratic socialism: “true freedom” ensured by economic security and humane policies that allow all people access to a higher quality of life.

During the speech, Sanders quoted extensively from FDR and Martin Luther King Jr. and comparing the resurgence of the far-right in the U.S. to the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. Defeating these forces, Sanders said, requires all of the things progressives have argued for and are arguing for now: robust labor protections, regulation of big business, a $15 or more minimum wage, Medicare for All, humane immigration policies, and prison reform, among others. It was good to hear Sanders lay these things out plainly, to claim them as democratic socialism and accept that label, wearing it on his sleeve proudly and punching the message home (by quoting FDR): “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

I loved hearing these things. I went back and listened to the FDR speech Sanders’ quoted, and while the senator’s rhetorical force may pale a bit compared to his predecessor, the borrowed sentiment was well used.

What I do wonder, however, is who’s going to listen. Sanders’ speech, so heavy on historical references it should have come with a works cited page, was a logically consistent, streamlined summation of the wrongs he wishes to right. But it was also a bit dry, a lecture rooted in the successes of New Deal liberalism that many of the pissed off and economically disadvantaged people in this country have never really had a chance to taste.

Every politician spends a good part of their career preaching to the choir. That’s pretty much all Donald Trump does. But he filled those pews in the first place by tapping into a similar sense of rage that Sanders rode to fame in 2016—that life sucks for the average American, money is tight, and the people running the show are assholes who don’t care about you. Trump does not have a solution to these problems beyond xenophobia and spite; Sanders does (as do several other candidates, but to varying degrees).

By now, his strongest supporters know his message. But it’s not clear to me if what Sanders’ laid out today will resonate with people who are still struggling and looking for answers. Fetishizing “real America” is largely a waste of time, but the success of Sanders’ campaign is going to ride on him selling the ideas and policies of socialism to voters, not the definition of and historical precedent for a certain ideology. When you promise someone that you can make the cost of their meds go down—and they ask how you’ll pay for it—they probably won’t respond well to you quoting FDR.

Bernie’s vision of the future is compelling, despite some areas of sparse applause in the middle of his speech today. I hope that I’m wrong, and that more Americans who weren’t already feeling the Bern are swayed by his outspoken defense of democratic socialism. But the issues Sanders hit on—low wages, healthcare, the social safety net, corporate greed—aren’t being ignored by his competitors for the nomination. And if he wants to win, he’ll need to do far more to distinguish himself than fall back on a label.

You can watch the full speech here:

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