Bernie Sanders argued Wednesday that the United States is at a moment as urgent as the one it found itself in during the 1930s: Authoritarianism and oligarchy are on the march across the world, he said, and the best way to defeat them is with an emphatic break from the mainstream politics of either party.
In a major campaign speech designed to counter critics of his democratic socialist ideology, the Vermont senator proposed a “21st century economic Bill of Rights” that would ensure the right to a decent job, health care, affordable housing, higher education, secure retirement and a clean environment.
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Sanders, whose family members were killed in the Holocaust, also reminded audience members that tens of thousands of Nazis gathered in 1939 “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.” But instead of falling for fascism, he said, Americans followed the path of New Deal liberalism.
“We rejected the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler. We instead embraced the bold and visionary leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” he said. “Together with organized labor, leaders in the African-American community, and progressives inside and outside the party, Roosevelt led a transformation of the American government and the American economy.”
Sanders drew a line between the Nazis who gathered in New York City in 1939 to the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in 2017. At the same time, he tied himself to Roosevelt: One of his biggest applause lines came when he recalled a well-known campaign speech that Roosevelt delivered in 1936.
Sanders repeated Roosevelt’s famous words that he had to struggle against “class antagonism,” “sectionalism,” “war-profiteering” and other foes: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred,” Sanders said.
The audience erupted, chanting “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” Some of them wore red T-shirts boosting Sanders’ proposed “Medicare for All.”
Sanders replied, “I must say, it does sound a little contemporary, doesn’t it?”
The independent presidential candidate also used the speech to tie himself to the Democratic Party, rattling off numerous examples of times that Democratic presidents, from FDR to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, were derided as socialists. And he said that, in embracing a new “economic Bill of Rights” like FDR proposed shortly before he died, he was trying to complete the unfinished business of the Democratic Party.
“Today, our Bill of Rights guarantees the American people a number of constitutionally protected political rights,” Sanders said. “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 decent job, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement and the right to live in a clean environment.”
In trying to tie his campaign to Roosevelt, Sanders was also making an implicit argument about his electability, a question mark that’s hovered over both his campaigns for president. “FDR and his progressive coalition created the New Deal, won four terms, and created an economy that worked for all and not just the few,” he said.
Sanders’ speech triggered a response from some of his most unpopular rivals. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said that “socialism means that the government owns and controls companies,” and uses them for “political purposes, for jobs and votes.”
Meanwhile, Republican leaders saw an opportunity to use Sanders’ speech to hitch all Democratic presidential candidates to socialism. Sen. Marco Rubio released a video today blasting democratic socialism, saying it “hasn’t worked anywhere in the world” and “is incompatible with our American values.” The Republican National Committee also continued its series of emails titled “Bernie ❤ socialism,” with today’s missive ending with the line “so do his 2020 comrades.”
In an interview with POLITICO before the speech, Sanders said conservatives have long misled Americans about democratic socialism.
“Over the years, you have right-wing politicians who are trying to lump socialism into authoritarianism and into communism,” he said. “They are very different ideologies.”