THIS FALL, I got a crash course in the life and times of Bernie Sanders as I researched my e-book on the Democratic presidential candidate called The Bern Identity, coming out next month on Amazon.com.
I learned how the future Vermont senator rejected the Cold War ideology of both political parties as a University of Chicago student in the early 1960s and joined the campus chapter of the Young People's Socialist League, the so-called Yipsels - at the same time that he was becoming a leader in protests against racial discrimination in housing and public schools. For someone with the kind of political ambitions that the future senator clearly harbored, a "socialist" tag might be the kind of past he'd try to whitewash later in life - especially since more Americans have said in polls that they'd vote for a Muslim or an atheist for president than said they'd vote for a socialist.
Those who once harbored more radical ideas in the late '60s or '70s who are still in politics are more likely to have become Wall Street-friendly raging moderates. (Cough, Hillary, cough.) But that's not the way the head-down, pounding endurance route of Bernie Sanders, one of Brooklyn's top cross country runners in the late 1950s. He's that rare politician determined to convince you of his vision - even if it takes his entire lifetime - rather than pander to what he thinks you want him to say.
Last week on the campus of Georgetown University, Sanders delivered a landmark - and possibly even historic - address on what it means to be what he called "a democratic socialist" in America in our 21st century:
"The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this," Sanders said. "I don't believe government should own the grocery store down the street or control the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal."
In his address, Sanders noted that reforms backed by Franklin Roosevelt that were seen as radical for their time - Social Security, or the proposals that would become Medicare three decades later - are widely accepted today. "By the way, almost everything he proposed was called 'socialist,' " he said.
Just a couple of quick thoughts. First, while I applaud Sanders' remarkable consistency over the past 55 years, I'd have to say that "democratic socialist" isn't the branding that I'd go with if I were starting from scratch in 2015. Why? I think the term "socialist" suggests certain programs - nationalizing industries like the railroads (oops, we kinda did that one . . . never mind) or coal mines, when that's not in any way what Sanders advocates. Instead, he supports an expanded role for government in a handful of areas where unfettered capitalism - insurance executives paying themselves seven-figure salaries while rejecting your kid's transplant, for example - doesn't make sense.
If "democratic socialism" meant a state-run media instead of a free press, or if the government decided to nationalize Silicon Valley for Soviet-style production of the iPhone 7, that would be a terrible idea. Bernie Sanders doesn't support that. Nobody does. Instead, his platform asks some basic questions. Why do we take care of all old people through Social Security but not all sick people? Why do we only offer free public schooling through 12th grade, when it's not possible to succeed today without either advanced vocational training or a college degree? Is that democratic socialism, or just common sense?
The most interesting thing about Sanders' speech today is his effort to recast himself not as someone "from the 1960s" (Hillary's unexpected phraseology) but as a reincarnation of FDR. That's not just to associate his campaign with uplifting the working class - something Roosevelt did more successfully than any other POTUS - but also to remind folks that when it was necessary, FDR was resolute in dealing with threats overseas. But will Sanders ever get a chance to prove this in the White House? That will be tough - while most polls have shown him beating the weak GOP field, it will be very, very hard for Sanders to erode the years of goodwill that Clinton has developed with the Democratic base of older voters, blacks, Latinos and female activists. But then, his campaign is largely more about his ideas than about him. For me, the last few years - from the crash of '08 to the current painful sight of watching some beloved friends and colleagues losing their jobs - have caused me to lose a lot of faith in capitalism as we've come to know it in America. But this much seems clear: that expanded educational and health-care opportunities, and strong unions in the workplace to maintain a middle class, are critical for this country to get anywhere in the 21st century. Bernie Sanders says that would make me a "democratic socialist," too. If that's the case, then count me in.