In the US 2016 presidential campaign, one candidate stands out as running on a platform that would make him almost undistinguishable from any European Social Democrat, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
He calls himself a “democratic socialist” – nothing spectacular in Europe, but in America, chances are that half the country may consider him a dangerous left-wing freak and thus unelectable.
But his campaign’s bet is that things have changed. In a much-anticipated speech at Washington’s Georgetown University on Thursday, Sanders went on the offensive to explain precisely what this label means.
It is a label Sanders carries with pride, referencing Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, Democratic presidents whose social reforms have once been demonized but are now widely accepted as unalterable contributions to the American support system.
“Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” Sanders said. “Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”
In Sanders’ eyes, Americans today live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals.
The senator has made the issue of wealth and income inequality, “the great moral issue of our time”, his overriding campaign theme.
“There is something profoundly wrong when 58 percent of all new income since the Wall Street crash has gone to the top one percent”, Sanders said, calling it a “massive re-distribution of wealth” in the wrong direction.
The statistical example that Sanders uses in his stump speech is this: the 15 richest individuals in the United States own more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans, roughly one third of the population.
Another point that Sanders raised: despite huge advancements in technology and productivity, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages.
The real median income of male workers is more than $700 (650 euros) less than it was 42 years ago; while the real median income of female workers is over $1,300 (1200 euros) less than it was in 2007. “That is unacceptable and that has got to change.”
At Georgetown, Sanders expounded his plans to reduce income and wealth inequality: massive investments in a youth jobs program, expanding social security, tuition-free public colleges and universities, universal health care, higher minimum wage.
“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, like tomorrow, remember this,” he told his student audience. “I don’t believe government should own the grocery store down the street or control the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”
While conservative opponents routinely denounce Sanders’ ideas as “socialist”, sometimes even as “un-American”, the students often interrupted his speech by thunderous applause.
The university, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher education in the US, is an expensive and prestigious elite college, regularly visited by international heads of state, US politicians and religious leaders.
The young and educated students at Georgetown and elsewhere in the country have become an important base of Sanders in this campaign.
The senator is lacking support, even name recognition among minorities and other groups who are part of the Democratic coalition that elected Barack Obama twice.
But the Sanders campaign surprised experts over the past months that the long-time Independent is able to take the fight over the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s frontrunner.
Just until a few weeks ago, Sanders gained ground in the polls, while Clinton seemed to struggle.
But after strong debate performances and a stellar 11-hour testimony before a Congressional Benghazi committee, the former US secretary of state, New York senator and First Lady seems to be back on an easy path toward the nomination.
Yet, Sanders is confident that the race isn’t over. “Looking ahead to next year’s general election, Sanders is much more popular than Clinton with independents and he is much better positioned with Republicans”, his campaign says.