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Democratic socialist Sanders kicks off campaign

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Bernie Sanders, the two-term independent senator from Vermont, is scheduled to officially kick off his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination Tuesday in Burlington, Vermont. (Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on April 30.)

Local celebrities Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, are expected to be on hand (and there will be free ice cream). Sanders is expected to share the speaker’s podium with Vermont-based environmentalist Bill McKibben. Mango Jam, a Burlington-based band, will provide music.

Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist. He caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate and has previously indicated that he does not want to run as a third-party candidate and be a political spoiler for the eventual Democratic nominee.

Democratic socialists (in the U.S. and abroad) historically have advocated a political and economic system in which the government is chosen democratically and subject to the will of the people, while the means of production (factories, farms, and other producers of goods and services) are owned and/or controlled by society as a whole, rather than by individuals or corporations. However, there is no precise and universally accepted definition of democratic socialism. Some democratic socialists advocate for a heterogenous economy with private property and investor ownership, as well as ownership of property and enterprises by cooperatives, employee groups , government, and communities. They favor reform and regulation of the capitalist economic system by a democratically elected government, rather than its replacement with a fully socialist economy.    

The democratic socialist moniker that Sanders proudly claims can be toxic in some parts of the American political landscape, and it will certainly alienate many conservatives as well as some liberals, says presidential historian Julian Zelizer at Princeton University. But, Zelizer points out, over the last century, socialists have at times made a significant mark in national politics and even some presidential campaigns. (Zelizer is author most recently of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”) 

In the election of 1912, labor organizer and Socialist Party firebrand Eugene V. Debs pulled in 6 percent of the popular vote nationwide — an all-time high share for a Socialist presidential candidate. The 1912 election saw a four-way contest among national candidates after Theodore Roosevelt split with the Republicans and ran on the Progressive ticket against the Republican incumbent, William Taft. Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, won the election with 42 percent of the vote. Roosevelt got 27 percent; Taft got 23 percent.

Debs went on to take 3 percent of the vote in the election of 1920 — running from prison, where he was serving time for advocating non-compliance with the draft during World War I.

The Socialists didn’t win any states’ electoral votes in 1912 or in subsequent elections, but their showings in the pre- and post-World War I years were still significant,  Zelizer says. “They didn’t win. They didn’t get huge portions of the electorate. But they put forth a lot of the issues in the early 1900s that would eventually become part of the platform of the Democratic Party.”

Those core Socialist causes included the eight-hour day and 40-hour week, child-labor laws, social insurance, the progressive income tax, as well as labor and political rights for women and African-Americans.

Debs ran for president five times. Norman Thomas took up the Socialist Party mantle in the Great Depression and ran for president six times. With schisms and red scares after World War I, the socialist party and movement gradually lost adherents and influence, though it still succeeded at times in electing local officials, and its positions continued to push labor and civil rights advocacy on the left,  Zelizer says. After World War II, the Cold War and McCarthyism virtually obliterated socialism as a meaningful political force in American politics.

Socialist leader Norman Thomas’s great-granddaughter, Louisa Thomas, has written a book about the family titled “Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — a Test of Will and Faith in World War I.  She says that like Bernie Sanders, Norman Thomas often referred to himself as a democratic socialist.

“He was running for president to use it as a platform,” says Louisa Thomas. “At one point he said that he was a champion not of lost causes, but of causes not yet won.”

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