After listing many metrics showing Americans today are working harder than ever yet facing undue pressures to pay for necessities like housing, healthcare, higher education and retirement, Sanders said democratic socialism means reviving the wisdom and policies behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Rev. Martin Luther King’s call for economic justice.
“Real freedom must include economic security,” Sanders said, quoting FDR’s 1944 speech calling for a second Bill of Rights for economic justice. “That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. And it is time that we did.”
“People are not free,” he continued. “They are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family. They are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. They are not truly free when they are unemployed, underemployed or when they are exhausted by working 60, 70 hours a week. People are not truly free when they don’t know how they are going to get medical help, when they or a family member are sick.”
“So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” Sanders said. “It builds on 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, who have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, their elderly citizens, their children, their sick and their poor.”
Sanders repeatedly reminded the Georgetown University audience that there was an epidemic of childhood poverty and other unmet needs across America, while the richest Americans are accumulating unprecedented wealth. He said the solutions could be funded by wealthly individuals and corporations paying a fair share of taxes.
What follows are a dozen excerpts from Sanders' speech of what democratic socialism means to him and could mean for the country. It is a vision of a better world that starts with improving the economics and the dignity of Americans at home, which in turn Sanders said would better position America to face challenges from abroad, such as the terrorist threat posed by ISIS, which he addressed in the final quarter of his 100-minute speech.
1. Major political and economic reforms. “Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system which is corrupt, that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism, to my mind, speaks to a system, which for example during the 1990s—and I want you to hear this—allowed Wall Street to spend $5 billion, over a 10-year period, in lobbying and campaign contributions in order to get deregulated. They wanted the government off of their backs. They wanted to do whatever they wanted to do….
"Then, 10 years later, after the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior led to their collapse, what our system enabled them to get bailed out by the United States government, which through Congress and the Fed, provided trillions of dollars in aid to Wall Street. In other words, Wall Street used their wealth and power to get Congress to do their bidding for deregulation, and then when Wall Street collapsed, they used their wealth and power to get bailed out. Quite a system!
“And then, to add insult to injury, we were told that not only were the banks too big to fail, we were told that the bankers were too big to jail. And this is the system. Young people who get caught possessing marijuana, they get police records—and many many hundreds of thousands have police records that have impacted their lives in serious ways. On the other hand, Wall Street CEOs who help destroy the economy, they don’t get police records, they get raises in their salaries. And this is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he talked about socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for everyone else.”
2. An end to corporate welfare. “It is time that we had democratic socialism for working families, not just for Wall Street billionaires. It means that we should not be providing welfare for corporations. It means that we should not be providing huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country or trade policies, which boost corporate profits while they result in workers losing their jobs. It means that we create a government which works for all of the American people, not just powerful special interests. It means that economic rights must be an essential part of what America stands for.”
3. A national public healthcare system. “It means that health care should be a right of all people, not a privilege… I know that there are some people out there who think this is just an incredibly radical idea—imagine, in the United States of America, all of us, having health care as a right. But I hope all of you know this is not a radical idea. It is a conservative idea. It is an idea and a practice that exists in every other major country on earth.
"Not just in Scandanavia—in Denmark, in Sweden, in Finland or Norway. It exists in Canada—I live 50 miles away from Canada; not a radical idea. It exists in France, Germany, Taiwan. All over the world, countries have made the determination that all of their people are entitled to health care, and I believe the time is long overdue for the United States to join the rest of the world… And by the way, what a Medicare-for-all system will bring about is ending the absurdity of the American people paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.”
5. A government that creates jobs, not prisoners. “Democratic socialism means that our government does everything it can to create a full employment economy. It makes far more sense to me to put millions of people back to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, than to have a real unemployment rate of almost 10 percent. It is far smarter to invest in jobs and educational opportunities for young people who are unemployed, than to lock them up and invest in jails and incarceration.”
6. A living minimum wage and real family leave. "Democratic socialism means that if someone works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty; that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage—$15 bucks an hour over the next several years. It means that we join the rest of the world and pass the very strong Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation now sitting in Congress.
“I want you to think about this, and I want you to really see what goes on in our country today. It’s not only that every other major country—I’m not talking about Europe or Scandanavia—virtually every country in the world, poor countries, small countries, reach the conclusion that when a woman has a baby she should not be forced to be separated from that newborn baby after a week or two and have to go back to work. Making sure that moms and dads can stay home and get to love their babies is a family value that we should support. And that is why I want, and will fight, to end the absurdity of the United States being one of the only countries on Earth that does not guarantee at least three months of paid family and medical leave.”
7. Stopping climate change-causing industries. "Democratic socialism to me means that we have government policy, strong government policy, which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry to destroy our environment and our planet. And it means to me that we have a moral responsibility to combat climate change and leave this planet healthy and inhabitable for our kids and grandchildren.”
8. The wealthy must pay a fair share of taxes. "Democratic socialism means that in a democratic, civilized society the wealthiest people and the largest corporations must pay their fair share of taxes. Yes, innovation, entrepreneurship and business success should be rewarded. But greed for the sake of greed is not something that public policy should support.
“It is not acceptable to me that in the period of time, the last two years, 15 of the wealthiest people in this country—15 people—saw their wealth increase, in this rigged economy, by $170 billion. Got it? Two years. Fifteen people, $170 billion increase in their wealth. That is more wealth than is owned by the bottom 130 million Americans. Let us not forget what Pope Francis has so elegantly stated and I quote: ‘We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.’ End of quote.
“In other words, we’ve got to do better than that. It’s not a political issue. It’s not an economic issue. It’s a cultural issue. We have got to stop worshipping people who make billions and billions and billions of dollars, while we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country.”
9. America’s political system must be a democracy. “Democratic socialism, to me, does not just mean that we must create a nation of economic and social justice and environmental sanity. Of course, it does mean that. But it also means that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person, one vote. It is extremely sad—and I hope all of you will pay a lot of attention to this issue—it is extremely sad that the United States, one of the oldest, most stable democracies in the world, has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country, and that millions of young people and working-class people have given up on the political process entirely.
“In the last midterm election, just a year ago, 63 percent of the American people didn’t vote, 80 percent of young people did not vote. Clearly, despite the efforts of many Republican governors, who want to suppress the vote, to make it harder for people of color and old people to participate in the political system, our job together is to make it easier for people to vote, not harder to vote. It is not a radical idea—and I will fight for this as hard as I can as president—to say that everyone in this country who is 18 years of age or older is registered to vote: end of discussion.”
“I do believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America, companies that create jobs here, rather than companies that are shutting down in America and increasing their profits by exploiting low-wage labor abroad. I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes—if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally start paying the taxes that they should."
11. Equal treatment by government, not racism. “I don’t believe in special treatment for the top 1 percent, but I do believe in equal treatment for African Americans who are right to proclaim the moral principle that black lives matter. I despise appeals to nativism and prejudice, a lot of which we have been hearing in recent months. And I do proudly believe in immigration reform that gives Hispanics and others a pathway to citizenship and a better life.
“And while I am on that subject, let me say a real word of concern to what I have been hearing from some of the Republican candidates for president in recent months. People can have honest disagreements about immigration or about anything else. That’s called democracy. But people should not be using the political process to inject racism into the debate. And if Donald Trump and others refer to Latinos, 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.”
12. Do not become cynical; work for change. “Do not, do not, do not become cynical… I am running for president in order for all of us to be able to live in a nation of hope and opportunity, not for some, but for my seven grandchilden, and for all of you.
“Nobody understood better than Franklin Delano Roosevelt the connection between American strength at home and our ability to defend America around the world. And that is why he proposed a second Bill of Rights in 1944, and said in that very same State of the Union, and I quote again, ‘America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace—lasting peace—in the world.'"
Foreign Policy and the Use of Force
The final section of Sanders’ speech concerned foreign policy and whether the U.S. should use military force abroad. Sanders said, “I am not running for president to pursue reckless adventures abroad, but to rebuild America’s strength at home. I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will never send our sons and daughters to war under false pretense, or pretenses about dubious battles with no end in sight.”
Sanders said George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and war of choice was one of many examples where a foreign policy decision led to serious unanticipated consequences that unfolded over many years and destabilized entire regions. In that context, he said ISIS must be defeated by military and other policies, but, “we cannot, and should not, do it alone.” He said that could only happen when other Muslim countries in the region, especially wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia, became more involved and see this as a fight for "the soul of Islam," which is not an appropriate role for America.
“While the U.S. and other western nations have the strength of our militaries and political systems, the fight against ISIS is a struggle for the soul of Islam, and countering violent extremism and destroying ISIS must be done primarily by Muslim nations—with the strong support of their global partners,” Sanders said.
“Our response must begin with an understanding of past mistakes and missteps in our previous approaches to foreign policy,” he said. “It begins with the acknowledgment that unilateral military action should be a last resort, not a first resort, and that ill-conceived military decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq, can wreak far-reaching devastation and destabilization over regions for decades. It begins with the reflection that the failed policy decisions of the past—rushing to war, regime change in Iraq or toppling Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953: Mossadegh was the president. The CIA and others got rid of him, to protect British petroleum interests. The Shah of Iran came in, a brutal dictator, and he was thrown out by the Islamic revolution, and that is where we are in Iran today.
“Decisions have consequences, often unintended consequences,” he continued. “So whether it was Saddam Hussein, or Mossadegh, or Guatemalan president Árbenz in 1954, Brazilian president Goulart in 1964, Chilean president Allende in 1973—this type of regime change. This type of overthrowing governments we may not like, often does not work, often makes a bad and difficult decision even worse. These are lessons we must learn.”
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).