The senator and presidential candidate delivered a rebuke to “unfettered capitalism” and proposed an “economic bill of rights” during speech at GW.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Democratic socialism is key to defeating authoritarianism and continuing the “unfinished work” of the New Deal, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said at the George Washington University Wednesday.
In a rousing speech that repeatedly invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., the senator and presidential candidate leaned into and defined the label often applied to him as a pejorative.
“Democratic socialism means, to me, requiring and achieving political and economic freedom in every community in this country,” Mr. Sanders told an enthusiastic audience packed into the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre.
Right-wing politicians use “socialism” as a convenient rhetorical boogeyman while profiting from it in practical terms, Mr. Sanders said, adding that while democratic socialism emphasizes economic egalitarianism and social programs for the vulnerable, President Donald Trump and his allies have embraced a “corporate socialism” by which the richest members of society avoid taxation and large corporations receive taxpayer-funded bailouts.
“Corporate America receives hundreds of billions of dollars in federal support every single year, while these same people are trying to cut programs that benefit ordinary Americans,” he said. “They don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches President Trump and other billionaires.”
The disparity between America’s rich and poor is at its worst since the 1920s, with the country’s most affluent 1 percent owning more of America’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined.
“After decades of policies that have encouraged and subsidized unbridled corporate greed, we now have an economy that is fundamentally broken and grotesquely unfair,” Mr. Sanders said.
To tackle the imbalance, Mr. Sanders proposed an “economic bill of rights” that would codify every American’s right to a living wage, health care, education, affordable housing, a clean environment and a secure retirement. The bill would be a modern version of the “second Bill of Rights” that FDR proposed in 1944 but never lived to see realized.
“We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights,” he said.
Supporters and members of the press attended the event at GW's Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
Labeling something “socialist” to undermine public support for it is a decades-old scaremongering technique applied to everything from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to the Obama-era stimulus package, Mr. Sanders said. He quoted a 1952 campaign speech by Harry S. Truman: “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.”
“I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur,” Mr. Sanders said. “But I should also tell you that I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades, and I am not the only one.”
As authoritarian regimes “redirect popular anger about inequality and declining economic conditions into violent rage against minorities,” the fundamental inequities at the root of that anger must be faced and addressed, Mr. Sanders said.
“Today we have a demagogue in the White House who for cheap political gain is trying to deflect attention from the real crises we face, to divide people up and legislate hatred,” Mr. Sanders said. “The U.S. must reject that path of hatred and divisiveness and instead find the moral conviction to choose a different path, a higher path, a path of compassion, justice and love. And that is the path that I call democratic socialism.”