Bernie Sanders On Being Jewish And A Democratic Socialist
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're about to hear Senator Bernie Sanders say what he means by socialism. The Democratic presidential candidate says he is a socialist, or more precisely, a democratic socialist.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The label is a big reason he's a national figure. He draws interest even from those who wouldn't vote for him because he's the only socialist in Congress. The label is also a big liability when running for president of this capitalist country.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And as one part of our long interview this week, the candidate made an extended defense of that label. He traces his beliefs to his childhood in a modest apartment in Brooklyn and to his political activism in college. It was 1962.
BERNIE SANDERS: We were trying to support our friends in the South. People like John Lewis in the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. But we also wanted to take a look at the region that we were living in. It turns out that at that point, sadly but truthfully, the University of Chicago, the school that I went to, owned housing which was segregated.
INSKEEP: Bernie Sanders participated in protests demanding integration. Later he protested against segregation in Chicago public schools. And he says he was arrested. An old article in the Chicago Tribune describes Bernard Sanders, 21, fined $25 for resisting arrest.
SANDERS: I think my experience at the University of Chicago, working in the civil rights movement, working in the peace movement, working with community organizations, did a lot to influence the politics that I now have.
INSKEEP: There's a photograph of you at a sit-in at the University of Chicago. Do you remember that moment?
SANDERS: I do. I don't remember that exact moment. But I surely remember being in the administration building sitting in long sleepless nights and working with young people to do the right thing. And that is to tell our university, at that time, the University of Chicago, that it was wrong to own and maintain segregated housing. I remember it very well.
INSKEEP: You were also a member of, I believe, a young socialist league at that time.
SANDERS: Young People's Socialist League.
INSKEEP: Young People's Socialist League. So, you were attracted to socialism at an early age.
SANDERS: I learned a lot. That's where - I was not a great student at the University of Chicago. I think that is - the record will bare me out. But I spent a lot of time reading history, sociology, psychology - reading everything except what I was supposed to read for class the next day. But I did a lot of reading. I read about democratic socialism. And I read about the efforts of people for such a long time trying to create a society in which all people can live with dignity. And that's kind of what I believe today. We can do it. We can have paid family and medical leave. We can make public colleges and universities tuition-free. These are not revolutionary, radical ideas. They're kind of common sense.
INSKEEP: Are you still that idealistic student?
SANDERS: Maybe I am. Maybe I am. I'm a little bit older now, a little bolder, hair a little bit grayer.
INSKEEP: You were asked in a debate, why it is that you think that people will vote for someone who describes himself as a socialist - or democratic socialist. Even though large numbers of people in surveys have said that they are opposed to that label. You responded, once people understand what I mean by it, they'll support it. OK. What is socialism to you?
SANDERS: What democratic socialism is, is to number one, build on some enormously important and popular programs that we have right now. I don't want to get people nervous falling off their chairs, but Social Security is a socialist program. It's a program by which the United States government has said that when you get old you should have a steady source of income. Regardless of whether the economy is strong or weak, we build on Social Security. Medicare is a single-payer health care system. Again, I don't want to get people too nervous. It has transformed healthcare for the elderly. My view is that we should expand Medicare not just for the elderly, but for all Americans. So to answer your question, what democratic socialism means to me is that we should have a government addressing and representing the needs of the vast majority of our people rather than is the case today, a government which represents large campaign donors and corporate America and the top one percent.
INSKEEP: When many people hear the word socialism or democratic socialism they may think in terms of the government taking over the steel mills, taking over the commanding heights of business. You're saying you don't mean that.
SANDERS: No, I don't mean that at all - of course I don't. But I think we have seen in Scandinavia, market economies which are strong but which are very conscious that the distribution of wealth and income has got to positively impact all people, not just a few.
INSKEEP: I'm curious because you can look at a Gallup survey that finds something like 50 percent of voters would say they would not vote for a socialist if they're just asked. It's a label that attracts some people to you but pushes some people away. And I'm wondering what it is about the word that has made you hold onto it when you could easily have just started saying you're a Democrat.
SANDERS: Because that's what I believe. And that's what I've always believed. And I think people, the better they get to know me, will find that I just don't change my positions for convenience.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about another word and what it means to you. At a town hall meeting, a student town hall meeting the other day, you took a question from a young Muslim woman who was upset about what she felt was discrimination. And as part of your answer you said, I'm Jewish. What does being Jewish mean to you?
SANDERS: Let me - I'll answer that. And let me just respond to that. What I heard in her voice was fear. I think she wanted to be an engineer. A very bright young lady. I don't want to see kids in America being scared because they're hearing people on television and the radio saying these really ugly xenophobic and racist things. This is the year 2015. We have come a long, long way as a nation. We've elected an African American as president. All of that does relate very much to the fact that I am Jewish. When I was a young boy, I can remember in the community that I grew up in, seeing people in the community who had numbers that were on their arms.
INSKEEP: You've just pulled up your sleeve here, going on your forearm there.
SANDERS: These were the Nazi identifications, the numbers that they put on prisoners in concentration camps - more than a few. And I certainly was aware of the fact that much of my father's family was killed in the Holocaust. Just a couple years ago, my brother and I went back to a small town in Poland where my dad grew up. So it was a very traumatic experience for me as a young man to know that my father's family were killed by Nazis, killed by Hitler. And that left, you know, if not intellectually, at least an emotional part of me which said, God, we have got to do everything we can to end this kind of horrific racism or anti-Semitism. And I have spent much of my life trying to fight that.
INSKEEP: Senator Sanders, thanks very much.
SANDERS: Steve, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.