Socialist has never been a complimentary term in American political discourse, but it has reached a particularly high level of toxicity during the past six years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
While the president and his defenders have spent a great deal of time parrying that attack, Bernie Sanders is using the socialist label to his advantage, packing venues around the country and establishing himself as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s leading challenger for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders, 73, has been preaching socialism for nearly half a century, and he cites Eugene Debs, the five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, as his hero. But he hasn’t always embraced the label.
“I myself don’t use the word socialism,” he said in 1976 in the Vermont Cynic, a student publication at the University of Vermont, “because people have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labor camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech.”
Even when Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington in 1981, “Bernie never mentioned the word ‘socialist’ in his campaign,” according to Greg Guma, a longtime Sanders watcher and the author of “The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.”
When he won, though, it wasn’t Sanders’ choice anymore.
“The media probably made that label stick,” said Alan Abbey, who covered Sanders at the time for the Burlington Free Press. “It makes for good headlines.”