Bernie Sanders defends democratic socialist label, touts 'economic Bill of Rights'

Image: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders, in a speech Wednesday at George Washington University in Washington, laid out his vision of democratic socialism, the economic philosophy that has guided his political career. Copyright Andrew Harnik AP
By Dareh Gregorian and Gary Grumbach with NBC News Politics
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The 2020 presidential candidate compared today's America to the U.S. of the 1930s, and said it was time to pick up where Franklin D. Roosevelt left off.


Proudly calling himself a democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday proposed an "economic Bill of Rights" to combat income inequality and the rise of xenophobia and authoritarianism across the globe.

"We need a new vision to bring people together," Sanders, I-Vt., said in a speech his presidential campaign billed as a major address.

The speech at George Washington University was strikingly similar to one he gave at Georgetown University in 2015, when he sought to push back against criticism from Democrats and Republicans about referring to himself as a democratic socialist.

"Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me," Sanders said then. "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.'"

On Wednesday, Sanders defended himself from those who use the word socialism as "a slur," again quoted King and called for completing Roosevelt's "unfinished business" with an "economic Bill of Rights" that would include the right to a decent job that pays a living wage, quality health care, a complete education, affordable housing, a clean environment and a secure retirement.

He made several mentions of President Donald Trump, who spoke out against socialism in his State of the Union address in February. "America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country," Trump said then.

Sanders said Trump does believe in socialism — "corporate socialism for the rich and powerful."

"I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country," he said, adding that there was no time to wait.

"The very rich, live on average, 15 years longer than the poorest Americans," Sanders said.

Comparing the world today to the 1930s, Sanders said much of the globe now is run by oligarchs and authoritarians who blame immigrants and minorities for their countries' economic strife.

"In the United States, of course, we have our own version of this movement, which is being led by President Trump, and many of his Republican allies who are attempting to divide our country up," Sanders said.

"It is my very strong belief that the United States must reject that path" and "find the moral conviction to choose a different path, a higher path, a path of compassion, justice and love. It is the path that I call democratic socialism."

Some of Sanders' rivals in the 2020 Democratic field suggested a different view.

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney — who's lagging far behind Sanders in early polling — tweeted during Sanders' speech that "Democrats should restore capitalism's promise, not abandon it for socialism."

Asked before Sanders' speech about whether the senator's embrace of the term democratic socialism helps or hurts the Democratic Party, early front-runner Joe Biden said, "I don't put a whole lot in terms of labels."

"Look, I'm not going to comment on Bernie's act or characterization of who or what he is. He's sincere about what he thinks and I think he should go out and say it," the former vice president said during a campaign event in Iowa.

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