When critics of socialism warn against its dangers, they often invoke communist tyrants of the 20th century. So when Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a major speech on Wednesday about what democratic socialism means to him, those critics may have been surprised to hear that “freedom” was his watchword.
“What I believe is that the American people deserve freedom—true freedom,” Sanders said to an audience of supporters at George Washington University. “Freedom is an often-used word, but it’s time we took a hard look at what that word actually means. Ask yourself: What does it actually mean to be free?”
Sanders went on to list nearly a dozen examples illustrating how economic insecurity—in the form of low wages, unaffordable health care, meager pensions, and the like—is incompatible with anything that could be considered a free life. Moreover, Sanders said, this is by design: “Many in the establishment would like the American people to submit to the tyranny of oligarchs, multinational corporations, Wall Street banks, and billionaires.”
Sanders’ argument that democratic socialism is the path to true freedom is shrewd messaging: It’s an attempt to flip conservative talking points about socialism on their head, and to re-appropriate freedom as a principle of the left. It also allows him to sidestep interminable debates about what really counts as socialism by anchoring his ideology in a quintessentially American tradition of liberty.