A June 2019 speech by Bernie Sanders delivered at George Washington University (and abridged here) on what he means by socialism.
With so many crises converging upon us simultaneously, it is easy for us to become overwhelmed or depressed — or to even throw up our hands in resignation.
In the year 2019 the United States and the rest of the world face two very different political paths. On one hand, there is a growing movement towards oligarchy and authoritarianism in which a small number of incredibly wealthy and powerful billionaires own and control a significant part of the economy and exert enormous influence over the political life of our country.
On the other hand, in opposition to oligarchy, there is a movement of working people and young people who, in ever increasing numbers, are fighting for justice.
They are the teachers taking to the streets to make certain that schools are adequately funded and that their students get a quality education.
They are workers at Disney, Amazon, Walmart and the fast food industry standing up and fighting for a living wage of at least $15 an hour and the right to have a union.
They are young people taking on the fossil fuel industry and demanding policies that transform our energy system and protect our planet from the ravages of climate change.
They are women who refuse to give control of their bodies to local, state and federal politicians.
They are people of colour and their allies demanding an end to systemic racism and massive racial inequities that exist throughout our society.
They are immigrants and their allies fighting to end the demonisation of undocumented people and for comprehensive immigration reform.
When we talk about oligarchy, let us be clear about what we mean. Right now, in the United States of America, three families control more wealth than the bottom half of our country, some 160 million Americans. The top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 92% and 49% of all new income generated today goes to the top 1%. In fact, income and wealth inequality today in the United States is greater than at any time since the 1920s.
And when we talk about oligarchy, it is not just that the very rich are getting much richer. It is that tens of millions of working-class people, in the wealthiest country on earth, are suffering under incredible economic hardship, desperately trying to survive.
Today, nearly 40 million Americans live in poverty and tonight, 500,000 people will be sleeping out on the streets. About half of the country lives paycheck to paycheck as tens of millions of our people are an accident, a divorce, a sickness or a layoff away from economic devastation.
While many public schools throughout the country lack the resources to adequately educate our young people, we are the most heavily incarcerated nation on earth.
After decades of policies that have encouraged and subsidised unbridled corporate greed, we now have an economy that is fundamentally broken and grotesquely unfair.
Even while macroeconomic numbers like GDP, the stock market and the unemployment rate are strong, millions of middle class and working people struggle to keep their heads above water, while the billionaire class consumes the lion’s share of the wealth that we are collectively creating as a nation.
In the midst of a so-called booming economy real wages for the average worker have barely risen at all. And despite an explosion in technology and worker productivity, the average wage of the American worker in real dollars is no higher than it was 46 years ago and millions of people are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.
And here is something quite incredible that tells you all you need to know about the results of unfettered capitalism. All of us want to live long, happy, and productive lives but. in America today the very rich live on average 15 years longer than the poorest Americans.
But the struggle we are facing today is not just economic.
Across the globe, the movement toward oligarchy runs parallel to the growth of authoritarian regimes – like Putin in Russia, Xi in China, Mohamed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary among others.
These leaders meld corporatist economics with xenophobia and authoritarianism. They redirect popular anger about inequality and declining economic conditions into violent rage against minorities — whether they are immigrants, racial minorities, religious minorities or the LGBT community. And to suppress dissent, they are cracking down on democracy and human rights.
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 and attack these same communities. How sad it is that President Trump sees these authoritarian leaders as friends and allies.
This authoritarian playbook is not new. The challenge we confront today as a nation, and as a world, is in many ways not different from the one we faced a little less than a century ago, during and after the Great Depression in the 1930s. Then, as now, deeply-rooted and seemingly intractable economic and social disparities led to the rise of right-wing nationalist forces all over the world.
In Europe, the anger and despair was ultimately harnessed by authoritarian demagogues who fused corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia into a political movement that amassed totalitarian power, destroyed democracy, and ultimately murdering millions of people — including members of my own family.
Today, we are all rightly repulsed by the sight of neo-Nazis and Klansmen openly marching in Charlottesville, VA, and we are horrified by houses of worship being shot up by right-wing terrorists. But on February 20, 1939, over 20,000 Nazis held a mass rally – not in Berlin, not in Rome, but in Madison Square Garden, in front of a 30-foot-tall banner of George Washington — bordered with swastikas — in New York City.
Today, America and the world are once again moving towards authoritarianism — and the same right-wing forces of oligarchy, corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia are on the march, pushing us to make the apocalyptically wrong choice that Europe made in the last century.
Today, we now see a handful of billionaires with unprecedented wealth and power.
We see huge private monopolies — operating outside of any real democratic oversight and often subsidised by taxpayers – with the power to control almost every aspect of our lives.
They are the profit-taking gatekeepers of our health care, our technology, our finance system, our food supply and almost all of the other basic necessities of life. They are Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex and giant agri-businesses.
They are the entities with unlimited wealth who surround our nation’s capitol with thousands of well-paid lobbyists, who to a significant degree write the laws that we live under.
Today, we have a demagogue in the White House who, for cheap political gain, is attempting to deflect the attention of the American people away from the real crises that we face and, instead, is doing what demagogues always do — and that is divide people up and legislate hatred. This is a president who supports brutal family separations, border walls, Muslim bans, anti-LGBT policies, deportations and voter suppression.
It is my very strong belief that the United States 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.
It is the path that I call democratic socialism.
Today, our Bill of Rights guarantees the American people a number of important constitutionally protected political rights. And while we understand that these rights have not always been respected and we have so much more work to do, we are proud that our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, a free press and other rights because we understand that we can never have true American freedom unless we are free from authoritarian tyranny.
Now, we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights – the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.
We must recognise that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights.
That is what I mean by democratic socialism.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
To realise this vision, we must not view America only as a population of disconnected individuals, we must also view ourselves as part of “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” as Dr. King put it. In other words, we are in this together.
Now let’s be clear: while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism.
They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires.
Let us never forget the unbelievable hypocrisy of Wall Street, the high priests of unfettered capitalism.
In 2008, after their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior created the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression — with millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings — Wall Street’s religious adherence to unfettered capitalism suddenly came to an end.
Overnight, Wall Street became big government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history — some $700 billion from the Treasury and trillions in support from the Federal Reserve.
But it’s not just Wall Street that loves socialism — when it works for them. It is the norm across the entire corporate world. The truth is 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.
If you are a fossil fuel company, whose carbon emissions are destroying the planet, you get billions in government subsidies including special tax breaks, royalty relief, funding for research and development and numerous tax loopholes.
If you are a pharmaceutical company, you make huge profits on patent rights for medicines that were developed with taxpayer funded research.
If you are a monopoly like Amazon, owned by the wealthiest person in America, you get hundreds of millions of dollars in economic incentives from taxpayers to build warehouses and you end up paying not one penny in federal income taxes.
If you are the Walton family, the wealthiest family in America, you get massive government subsidies because your low wage workers are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive — all paid for by taxpayers.
If you are the Trump family, you got $885 million worth of tax breaks and subsidies for your family’s housing empire that is built on racial discrimination.
When Trump screams socialism, all of his hypocrisy will not be lost on the American people. Americans will know that he is attacking all that we take for granted: from Social Security to Medicare to veterans' healthcare to roads and bridges to public schools to national parks to clean water and clean air.
When Trump attacks socialism, I am reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
And that is the difference between Donald Trump and me. He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful.
I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.
What I believe is that the American people deserve freedom – true freedom. Freedom is an often used word but it’s time we took a hard look at what that word actually means. While the Bill of Rights protects us from the tyranny of an oppressive government, many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires.
It is time for the American people to stand up and fight for their right to freedom, human dignity and security.
This is the core of what my politics is all about.
In 1944, FDR proposed an economic bill of rights but died a year later and was never able to fulfil that vision. Our job, 75 years later, is to complete what Roosevelt started.
That is why today, I am proposing a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.
A Bill of Rights that establishes once and for all that every American, regardless of his or her income in entitled to:
The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
The right to quality health care
The right to a complete education
The right to affordable housing
The right to a clean environment
The right to a secure retirement.
• Speech given at George Washington University, Washington DC, in June 2019.