Bernie Sanders — socialist or democratic socialist?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking at his town hall meeting in Salem, N.H., on Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking at his town hall meeting in Salem, N.H., on Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo)

"Socialist" — the word is a loaded term and often a rhetorical weapon. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., seems to proudly claim it.

"Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word," he said in an interview with The Nation published in July. "When I ran for the Senate the first time, I ran against the wealthiest guy in the state of Vermont. He spent a lot on advertising — very ugly stuff. He kept attacking me as a liberal. He didn’t use the word ‘socialist’ at all, because everybody in the state knows that I am that."

When he announced his candidacy in April 2015, the word itself dominated headlines. But a few readers have objected to our use of the term.

"Would you kindly clarify your statements that Bernie Sanders self-identifies as a socialist?" one reader wrote, "He says 'democratic socialist.' There is a whopping difference, and your misstatement plays into the Republican candidates' demeaning statements too perfectly."

We wondered: Were we being inaccurate when we described him as a socialist?

The short answer: It’s akin to calling a honeycrisp an apple — not the most specific description, but not inaccurate. And here’s the kicker: Despite what he calls himself, Sanders isn’t exactly an apple, either.

Sanders’ campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But we found many examples of Sanders describing himself as a democratic socialist, a specific type of socialist who wants public ownership of the means of production (which means the tools and money to make things) and a democratic political system.

But he’s also called himself just a socialist.

That’s because, like Sanders, most democratic socialists use the terms interchangeably, said Joseph Schwartz, vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.

"When Bernie is asked, ‘Are you a socialist?’ he doesn't deny it, and he immediately talks about Scandinavia. He uses them interchangeably. But if you look at his history, he knows the distinction," Schwartz said.

To some, that distinction is more crucial politically, given America’s allergy to another type of socialism, the non-democratic kind of the former Soviet Union.

The word "socialism," after all, has been historically associated with the Cold War, gulags, and failed empires, argued Thor Benson, a journalist who wrote the piece "Stop Calling Bernie Sanders a Socialist" in The New Republic.

"We have a history of terrible propaganda against socialism and also communism, so it's likely people will misunderstand what you mean. When you refer to Sanders as a ‘democratic socialist,’ people are more likely to go look that up and try to figure out what he's about," Benson told PolitiFact.

Sanders himself eschewed the term "socialist" early in his career, but both his and the public’s attitudes towards the word have since evolved. A 2011 report by the Pew Center shows that while most Americans still view the word negatively, 49 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reacted positively to socialism (compared with 46 percent who viewed capitalism positively).

Experts told us that that’s because the word itself has evolved, "untethered from its original meaning," said Samuel Goldman, who studies the history and philosophy of political thought at George Washington University. The millennials and Gen-Xers who are more open to socialism aren’t associating it with a state-controlled economy. Rather than Soviet-style governing, they think of and admire Nordic models of living.

These policies include "strong labor rights, progressive taxation, a robust array of public goods like child care, health care, and higher education," all advocated by Sanders, said Schwartz. With these positions, Sanders is technically a social democrat — he isn’t calling for a red revolution, just "a way of making capitalism humane," according to Peter Dreier, a leftist political theorist at Occidental College. So he’s not really a socialist, at least by the strict definition of the word.

"In what sense is (Sanders) a socialist? Basically he’s for more entitlements for the middle class. …That’s not the classical 19th century Marxist understanding or even the 20th century one. But maybe this is what socialism means today," said David Azerrad, who studies American political traditions at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It’s a pale counterfeit, a considerably diluted form than the original."

Even among conservatives, "socialist" carries a different meaning today, albeit for a similar purpose.

"Virtually every fundraising letter I get from a conservative outfit accuses someone of being a socialist," Azerrad said, adding that the insult now connotes rampant entitlements and big government.

Given the contemporary right’s continued usage of the word, Sanders championing the label has an aspirational quality, experts said.

"If you allow the right to control the term, that limits what type of reform you can achieve. If you allow the right to define it as totally un-American, it takes it off of any agenda for reform," said Schwartz.

While Sanders’ actual views "would have been pretty typical of Democrats in the 1950s, particularly those with connections to organized labor," he makes socialism more appealing by associating it with popular policies, according to Goldman.

"In a way, Sanders is reclaiming a term that was used to discredit his political ancestors," Goldman said. "Conservatives argued that minimum wage laws and Medicare were socialist measures. In effect, Sanders is saying: ‘So what if they were?’ "

Sanders may also have a more shrewd reason for labeling himself a socialist: It tidily sums up his priorities and helps distinguish him from other Democrats, according to Goldman.

Here at PolitiFact, we will continue to identify Sanders as either an independent, a socialist or a democratic socialist when we want to briefly describe his political affiliation and outlook, because Sanders refers to himself that way. But we will also refer readers who ask about it to this longer explanation.