GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- The shorthand that the media uses to describe Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has changed.
“It used to be that I was known as ‘the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress,’ which is true,” Sanders said during an appearance Saturday at Saint Anselm’s College here. “Now I’m a ‘self-professed democratic socialist.’ Things change when you run for president.”
In response to a student’s question, Sanders, whose campaign for the Democratic nomination has surged in recent weeks, went on to give a lengthy of explanation of what “democratic socialism” is -- and is not.
“So what does that mean?” Sanders asked the students. “Does anyone here think I’m a strong adherent of the North Korean form of government? That I want all of you to be wearing similar colored pajamas?”
When the laughter died down, the longest-serving independent in Congress asked how many of the students were familiar with the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland and Norway.
“Are these democratic societies? Obviously they are,” Sanders said, relaying that voter turnout in Denmark tends to approach 90 percent.
“Is it a society where the government owns every mom-and-pop store?” he asked. “Of course not. You have all kinds of capitalist entrepreneurship going on, a lot of wealth being created. But what else do you have? … An effort to make sure that all people benefit from the wealth that’s being created. So you have a much more equitable distribution of wealth and income. … I talked to a guy from Denmark, and he said, ‘In Denmark, it is very hard to become very, very rich, but it’s pretty hard to be very, very poor.’ And that makes a lot of sense to me.”
In Denmark, Sanders said, health care is a right, and college education is free. “Sounds like a very terrible form of government,” he said sarcastically.
In Finland, Sanders said, the public education system is the strongest in the world. There’s a strong child care system. Wages are generally higher than in the United States. And retirement programs are strong.
“Now is all that stuff free? No,” Sanders said. “They pay more in taxes. ... And the wealthy there pay a lot more in taxes."
But at the end of the day, Sanders said, Americans should ask themselves what it would be like to have a country where the elderly don't have to worry about how to pay for prescription drugs, where all parents have access to high-quality child care, and where they know their children can go to college, regardless of their income.
Sanders acknowledged the Scandinavian countries he cited “are no utopias.” But he asked his audience to compare how secure people are there compared to here.
“We’ve got an economy that basically says everybody is out there on their own," he said. "And if you don’t make it, well that’s tough luck. You don’t have any health insurance and you get sick, good luck to you. … You’re a bright kid and you come from a family that doesn’t have any money. Tough luck, you’re not going to go to college.”
“So what democratic socialism means to me," he said, "is having a government which represents all people, rather than just the wealthiest people, which is most often the case right now in this country. And it is making sure that all of our people have health care as a right, education as a right, decent housing as a right, child care as a right. That’s what I believe.”