Is Bernie Sanders a Democratic Socialist? Or Just a Socialist? Q&A With Jim Pethokoukis

What would Sanders' vision of democratic socialism mean for the country?


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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) has rocketed to the top of the Democratic presidential primary field by proposing a massive expansion of government: single-payer health care, free public college tuition, student loan forgiveness, universal pre-K, and more.  

His plans could cost as much as $60 trillion dollars over the next decade, more than doubling the federal budget.

More than any single policy, however, Sanders has run on an idea: democratic socialism, with the economies of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as models. 

At times in his life, however, he's also had kind words for socialist revolutionaries and regimes that are more authoritarian—although he has also condemned their harshest practices. 

So what is Sanders' vision of democratic socialism? And what would it mean for the country? To find out, Reason Features Editor Peter Suderman spoke with Jim Pethokoukis. He is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog.

Interview by Peter Suderman. Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Paul Detrick. Cameras by Meredith and Austin Bragg.

Photos: Sen. Bernie Sanders rally, Bob Daemmrich/Polaris/Newscom; Sanders at podium, Michael Mullenix/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Sanders with hands in air, pointing, Aaron Jackendoff/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Sanders giving speech, Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Sanders at speech, Michael Vadon via CC license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic; Dollars, ID 19971251 © Nicku |; TV, ID 36230840 © trekandshoot |; Sanders sign, TERRY SCHMITT/UPI/Newscom; Frame of picture L0051763/4—A philosopher with a celestial globe Wellcome Images Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

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  1. He’s a Democratic Socialist, dumbass. If he had enough guns he could be a Socialist but since he doesn’t he has to rely on being voted into power. Of course, once he’s voted into power he’ll have enough guns that he won’t even have to pretend to be a Socialist at all and he’ll go straight into Communist.

    1. I doubt it. He’s not Che. He just has a Che t-shirt

      1. Well no, but in his fantasies he’s Che.

        1. I feel in his fantasies he’s more Stalin, but that’s just me.

          1. I feel in his fantasies he is Ded Moroz and everyone has to sit in his lap to tell him what their needs are.

    2. No, he’s a commie rat bastard traitor. He praises dictators and bread lines. He demands massive looting of assets. His CAMPAIGN STAFF praises the gulags, and he hasn’t canned them.


    3. Callin it democratic socialism is like putting a different color lipstick on the same old pig.

      Socialism is a form of government that you can vote into but have to shoot your way out of.

  2. Bernie is a Communist trying to downplay it by saying he is a Socialist. Now he is trying to downplay that by saying that he is a Democratic Socialist.

    We as a nation are not voting in a Communist.

    I plan to vote for Bernie in the Georgia Primary to fuck up the Democrat Party after this Commie loses to Donald Trump in a landslide even bigger than 2016.

    bye bye Democrat party.

    1. I can’t wait to see the media go on a 24/7 effort to downplay all the connections between Bernie and the Soviets.

      Trump has a phone call with Putin, so he most be in cahoots with the Russians.

      Bernie, honey moon’s in Soviet Moscow, flies a communist flag in his mayor’s office for years, has repeatedly called himself a socialist, but there’s not connection there. Any imagined connection with Bernie and Communism is merely a fever dream of right wing kooks.

      1. I am so excited that Bernie winning the Democrat nomination or getting the boot by the DNC will mean the effective end of the Democrat Party. It really is a no win situation for the DNC.

        1. I want to see him win the nomination and then see Trump use the Communist Control Act against the DNC. I would die from laughter.

          1. It will be better when he is denied the nomination – once again – and his followers go even more nuts.

      2. Trump has more connections to the soviets(Putin) than Bernie could even think about !

        1. Trump’s connections are through the lethal aid to Ukraine and destruction of Russian mercenaries in Syria.
          Bernie’s connections were made on his knees.

  3. Notgonnabepresidentanyway.

    1. +1000

  4. This is a farce. You may as well find any expert to interview over whether tariffs are taxes or water is wet, except here you get to quibble over whether socialism is always or never democratic, whether Communism and Fascism and especially (it’s right in the name!) Nazism are socialist.

    Bernie is a fucking failed dictator. Every politician is a failed dictator, so is every cop and prosecutor, and probably every petty bureaucrat that ever existed, government or private.

    Even if Bernie were elected, he wouldn’t do anything to increase or retard the US slide into authoritarianism and eventual dictatorship and subsequent civil war / rebellion. That is inevitable but too far off to be relevant today.

  5. He, for all practical purposes, exhorts his followers to “Believe, Obey, Fight.” I haven’t heard him call for the government ownership of the means of production or the abolition of private property, so I conclude his policies are fascist – nominal ownership with lots of controls on businesses, workers and citizens. Remember too the symbol of fascism: the fasces – 12 rods representing the power to beat and an axe representing the power to kill.

    1. Guarantee tuition and debt-free public colleges, universities, HBCUs, Minority Serving Institutions and trade-schools to all.
      Cancel all student loan debt for the some 45 million Americans who owe about $1.6 trillion and place a cap on student loan interest rates going forward at 1.88 percent.
      Invest $1.3 billion every year in private, non-profit historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions
      End equity gaps in higher education attainment. And ensure students are able to cover non-tuition costs of attending school by: expanding Pell Grants to cover non-tuition and fee costs, tripling funding for the Work-Study Program, and more.

      This is taken from Bernie campaign. His plan would have control the means of production for student loans.

      1. How does one just “cancel” a loan?

        I don’t feel like paying my car note anymore, can I just send the bank a letter saying it’s canceled and we’re all good? I’m sure they’ll understand that my right to personal transportation trumps their right to be paid back.

        1. You can contact your lender to come get a vehicle because you want to default on a vehicle loan or lease.

          There is some collateral, so the damage to the lender is mitigated somewhat.

          An education loan is an unsecured loan, as in no collateral. Banks didnt want this risk and refused education loans for many until Congress enacted the Higher Education Act of 1965.

          1. Hmm, that doesn’t sound like “cancel” to me since that is somewhat paying my loan back. What I want to do is keep the car but not pay for it, kind of like all the kids that took out loans for school and have now decided that they shouldn’t have to pay them back because it’s super unfair for that bank to expect their money back.

            The fact that it took an act of Congress to make education loans even remotely viable should tell you a lot about them. Banks are pretty good at figuring out how to make money on loans, if they can’t make the math work on their own there’s a reason.

            And for the record this is all rhetorical, I have no problem paying my debts.

            1. You’re correct. I left out that you could still be liable for any difference in the terms of the loan/lease contract and the value of the collateral.

        2. Many of Bernie’s supporters believe that yes, it’s that simple, and that doing so in no way will jeopardize the bank’s ability to continue as a going concern.

          1. I think to them the banks going bankrupt is a feature, not a bug.

            1. How will they feel when the government goes bankrupt?

              1. It’s obviously the fault of wreckers and counter-revolutionaries!

      2. You should be able to default on student loans if you claim you didn’t actually learn anything or just can’t remember all that stuff.

        Or if you had an education and still think the government can spend all the money it wants, tariffs create jobs and wealth, socialism is a solid basis for government, or wonder if the flu vaccine will work against a different virus, any of those things, you should be entitled to a refund.

        1. And a state-sponsored lobotomy. There’s a “for the greater good” program I can get behind.

        2. But you still got to fuck around and party for 4 years. Isn’t that really why most people go to college?

      3. So he wants to promote and subsidize racially segregated institutions?
        I mean, HBCUs certainly have historical importance and significance, but I don’t think they are really the best vehicles for black people who want to get ahead nowadays, are they?

        1. I do wonder how a Presidential candidate would fare if [s]he proposed increased government funding specifically for HWCUs (Historically White Colleges and Universities).

          It’s racist to have a different reaction to a proposal for increased government funding for HWCUs than for a proposal for increased government funding for HBCUs.

          Although, it would not be racist to propose or support increased government funding for HPCUs (Historically Poor Colleges and Universities) – even though that might end up with more funding for HBCUs than HWCUs. (That’s not to say that the government should be funding even HPCUs – just that doing so is not blatantly racist).

    2. Lefties just love them their bundles of sticks.

      1. *Golf clap*

        Well played, sir.

    3. 2 examples…

      He’s called for public ownership of major utilities. (Gov. ownership)

      And also national rent-control. (Loss of private property rights.)

  6. Everyone should be Scandinavia. I think we can all agree with that. Except for soaking your fish in lye. That is just an abomination.

    1. What, pastey white, hard working, short on emotion, and as monolithic (and non-diverse) as can be?

      1. A bit of snark intended. I just think it’s funny that lefties and righties both seem to have a thing for Scandinavia.

        1. Well, Scandinavian women can be hot.

          I wouldn’t mind visiting Scandinavia once with the family, while it’s still there. In another generation or two it’s going to be replaced by a Muslim theocracy, they might or might not retain the name, but the culture will be dead.

  7. When Sanders says he is a Democrat Socialist, don’t forget that the Bolsheviks were the first party in history to refer to themselves as Democratic Socialists. He wants gun control? The first law that the Bolsheviks enacted was the confiscation of firearms throughout Russia. The Millenial generation seem to like him and according to polls socialism seems to be a preferred form of society among the Millenials. These preferences are very unfortunate.

    1. North Korea is a Democratic People’s Republic, it’s right there in the name!

  8. Is Bernie Sanders a Democratic Socialist? Or Just a Socialist?

    What is the difference?

    1. The former still pretends that elections matter to them, the latter has disposed of such notions and just gets straight to the violence.

    2. A democrat socialist believes that when it comes to healthcare, roads, education, public safety etc you know things are the foundation of society… things that companies shouldn’t be able to profit on… should be government run. Where things are not “life safety” should be capitalist.

      True socialism is everything provided and provided equally. Communism, is socialism with an athorateroian twist Ie rule by iron fist.

      Sanders is not a communist, not a socialist, but is a social democrat that believes things like ems, Fire, police, healthcare, education, roads, bridges, and a safety net for all, should be available. He still believes in capitalism but also believes the top 1% of the population should not hold 2 times the wealth of the lower 99%. He is actually fighting for the 99% unlike the others who say they are but are actually helping the 1% grow bigger.

      1. Yes, put the REALLY IMPORTANT things in the hands of government. Like a giant pile of money to be used on the retirement of the citizens……..

      2. Sanders wants 70% of GDP to be government spending. You really think 70% of everything is life safety?

      3. What about food? I can’t wait for those Venezuelan-style grocery stores!

        1. These debate moderators are really overlooking the crucial questions: “Senator Sanders, if we don’t need to have the choice of dozens of deodorants, what is the preferred Government-approved scent we’ll all have to wear?”

      4. Only a fucking idiot would buy what this asshole is selling, idiot.

    3. Just a different color of lipstick on the same old pig.

  9. The adjective does not change the underlying nature of the noun. Calling someone a benevolent dictator does not change the fact that it’s still a dictator.

  10. The “socialism” language is a mask. Bernie is a communist. His language (“the wealthy class,” “the exploited working class”) is rewarmed communist propaganda. His financial proposals include the same kinds of asset seizures that the communists employed. He wants to reshape corporations so they are owned and managed by workers. Those aren’t corporations, they’re collectives. Bernie is a communist, plain and simple.

    1. More specifically, he’s a Marxist. The terms socialism and communism are interchangeable. The question that might remain is: is he a Bolshevik/Leninist? A communist who insists on the necessity of the vanguard to compel the proletariat to revolution. If so, he’s be a big-C communist, the only kind of communism distinguishable from socialism.

  11. Placing “Democratic” in front of Socialism doesn’t change the ideology anymore than “Democratic Nazism” would change that one.

  12. Socialist or Democratic Socialist? Is this a serious question? Read Hayak. Any system that defines fairness in terms of equity is at odds with self-determination and will perpetually lurch toward authoritarianism to secure its aims. What could ever be “democratic” about that?

  13. Bernie Sanders is NOT a socialist. Bernie Sanders IS a COMMUNIST.

  14. The worldwide political paradigm, i.e., initiation of force/fraud is a disaster to liberty NO MATTER WHO rules. Just as “benevolent dictator” is an oxymoron so is benevolent ruler, representative, politician. The “lessor” disaster is still a disaster. If you prefer to compromise and accept a disaster to avoid a worse disaster you have accepted a false alternative. Accept NEITHER disaster, no disaster at all. Reject the coercive paradigm COMPLETELY. Be consistent. Be principled. Be practical & moral. It’s only logical.


  15. So the Scandinavian countries changed since the 70s, and Cuba and China injected a little capitalism. Electing Bernie will bring about a revolution about like electing Trump will somehow magically get Mexico to pay for a wall. Oh! Oh! The sky is falling! If the American system were just a little less rapacious, someone like Bernie would never rise up in the polls.

    1. There wasn’t anything magical about getting Mexico to pay for the wall; It could have easily have been done with a tax on remittances to points South. Maybe refundable if you established you were here legally.

      Could have been done easily if Congressional Republicans who’d run on a wall with Trump hadn’t been lying, and absolutely opposed to funding one. I don’t think Trump realized until he took office just how opposed the Republican caucus really was to the things they were running on doing.

  16. 60 trillion increase is actually less than the predicted 78 trillion we are expected to spend on healthcare over the next 10 years. Health care costs have risen between 4 and 10% each year. Sanders plan will make use of the commerce clause of the constitution to limit the profits medical corporations make off of us, Ie big pharm charging 600$ for a medication that takes 2$ to make. Sanders plan completely removes the middle man for profit insurance companies (eliminating insurance from profiting on your health). Sanders plan removes the chronic Emergency room user who can’t afford to pay for the definitive care referral, who instead of being cured by the ER are stabilized and cut loose to return again, who can’t pay their ER bill and that bill gets shifted over to the ones who can pay. Sanders plan will ultimately reduce the $15,000 an hour facility charge that we get hit for.

    Our current health care system costs approximately 12K a person average, yet only serves about 48% of the population. The highest Cost socialized medical system costs 6500 a person and covers 100% of its population.

    The argument that it will cost more, is unfounded and absurd!

    1. Yes as long as you can assume that you’re going to cut doctor pay 30% or so and that people won’t use your system any more than they are now, you can BARELY make it work!

      It’s a good thing that government isn’t known for drastically underestimating budgets……

      1. US doctors charge markedly higher than those of other countries, because the supply of doctors is tightly controlled by the number of medical school slots and residencies, which are both set by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, made mostly of established physicians.

        The solution is to loosen the supply, not arbitrarily mandate prices from central authorities.

        1. About 13% goes to physicians.

          It is hardly worth it. How many years and how much debt.

          Loosen the supply all you want. You get what you pay for.

        2. Actually, Medicare limits the number of residencies to 100,000 per year. Or 50,000 doctors. That was a favor the Clinton administration did for the AMA.

        3. I agree with you, and EVEN IF we “decide” to go universal, we need to DRASTICALLY increase supply. Of course, this goes against many decades of policy, but ignoring that, why don’t we start improving the supply FIRST? Because then we might not get stuck with the rest of the junk. They want to pass it all at once and get control of those dollars.

    2. And you need to retake math, lambchop. You are just making shit up.

    3. how do u account for the fact that healthcare costs only began to skyrocket after government involvement. Before government involvement in healthcare (medicare, medicaid and endless regulation) healthcare costs were quite affordable.

      1. Usually by running around, hands over ears, saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU”.

  17. Reason, I wholeheartedly agree with you on Sanders. But maybe you should keep the good stuff on him till after the nomination.

    I know you don’t like Trump, but between Trump and Biden, who would you rather have? Okay.

    Now, on that premise, it’s pretty clear who is more likely to give people cold feet on November 3 (the Bolshevik) and who’s more likely to get all the independent vote + over half the Democrat vote (the non-Trump moderate who’s just gonna expand healthcare and higher education). And I don’t want a Biden presidency where lots of things “get done”, and neither do you.

  18. Look at the debt. They’re all socialists.

  19. Official name of N. Korea: DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic of Korea.
    Enough said

  20. Who cares about the S word? Bickering over semantics is sophomoric.

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  22. “Democratic Socialist = Socialist/Communist.
    There is no real space between Socialists and Communists
    in the practical world.
    Kissing Cousins.

  23. Is anybody else as uncomfortable finally seeing Suderman’s face after listening to him on podcasts for a year or two? It’s jarring, and I don’t think I like it.

    1. *ahem* as uncomfortable as I am. Bah.

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