His socialist critics don't ask this: If he's not a socialist, why has he called himself one since the 1960s, when the Red Scare had barely begun to fade? Even today, atheists are more popular in the US than socialists. George Orwell could call himself a democratic socialist because the word had less stigma in England. Martin Luther King rarely mentioned his belief in democratic socialism because he knew the label made his work harder.
Yet Sanders is a public socialist in the US Senate, aka the Millionaire's Club and America's House of Lords. He fits in oddly: he comes from a working class background and he's no millionaire. He originally wanted to run for President as an independent, but his advisors convinced him that if he wanted media attention, he had to run as a Democrat. Even so, he continues to call himself a democratic socialist.
In the US, socialists can be divided into three groups based on their attitude toward participating in elections: anti-voters, third-partiers, and pragmatists.
Anti-voters believe the Revolution will come when the people rise. Like Christians who expect Jesus soon, they proselytize while they wait to be proven right. They say it's impossible for socialists to compete in a bourgeois democracy, ignoring this part of Frederick Engels' 1881 article in The Labour Standard,:
Thinking men of all classes begin to see that a new line must be struck out, and that this line can only be in the direction of democracy. But in England, where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, — the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order. [...] Moreover, in England a real democratic party is impossible unless it be a working men's party.
Ask anti-voters when the Revolution will come, and they have no answer.
Third-partiers may remember Engels's advice, but they fail to see that English and American democracy are very different. The US's two-party system requires an issue as great as slavery for one party to replace another. Third-partiers struggle bravely, treasuring every minor office they win and dreaming that someday they'll take the national stage.
Ask third-partiers when they will elect a President, and they have no answer.
Pragmatists believe the two-party system is so strong that their only hope is to work within it. When Sanders decided to run as a Democrat, he said, “If you're a billionaire, you can [run as an independent]. I'm not a billionaire. So the structure of American politics today is such that I thought the right ethic was to run within the Democratic Party.”
With that decision, he completed his lifelong journey from third-partier to pragmatist.
But the Democratic Party is not a working class party—it's the party of the left bourgeoisie, the liberal one-percent. Given Sanders' acceptance of the Democratic Party's limits, is it still right to call him a socialist?
If you think a socialist should demand nationalizing all big business, the answer is no. The closest Sanders comes to being a socialist now is believing the government should direct money toward the working class instead of the rich.
But if you think a socialist should be constantly pushing the country toward socialism, the answer is yes. Sanders' platform is for European-style social democracy, but in a land ruled by neoconservatives and neoliberals, that's movement toward socialism.
Pragmatic socialists believe his platform will help millions of Americans by:
1. Rasing the minimum wage: "The current federal minimum wage is starvation pay and must become a living wage. We must increase it to $15 an hour over the next several years."
2. Providing universal health care: "The only long-term solution to America's health care crisis is a single-payer national health care program."
3. Providing free higher education: "Bernie Sanders will fight to make sure that every American who studies hard in school can go to college regardless of how much money their parents make and without going deeply into debt."
4. Giving the countries of the Middle East more responsibility for their military affairs: "I find it remarkable that Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq and is controlled by a multi-billion dollar family, is demanding that U.S. combat troops have ‘boots on the ground’ against ISIS. Where are the Saudi troops? With the third largest military budget in the world and an army far larger than ISIS, the Saudi government must accept its full responsibility for stability in their own region of the world."
5. Ending the Israel-Palestine conflict: "...while recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself, he also strongly condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza as disproportionate and the widespread killing of civilians as completely unacceptable. The U.S. must play a leading role in creating a two-state solution, which will require significant compromises from both sides. The Palestinians must unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and hold accountable those who have committed terrorist acts. The Israelis must end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land. Both sides must negotiate in good faith..."
For more of Sanders' positions and how he would pay for them, see Issues - BernieSanders.com.
There is another issue socialists debate: How would Sanders treat Edward Snowden? Sanders has said he deserves "clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile from the country whose freedoms he cared enough about to risk his own freedom." As President, Sanders would have the power to grant clemency.
And when discussing Snowden and Sanders, Snowden's opinion also matters: Snowden tweeted after a debate that Sanders is “more credible on foreign policy” than Clinton or O'Malley.
Do I expect to make any socialists change their mind about Sanders? Sadly, no. But if anyone knows a better way to help America's working class next year, please let me know.