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Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), is not only making a splash in the Democratic primaries. He’s also pushing the bounds of America’s political vocabulary — with his proud declaration of being a democratic socialist.

“Socialist” is a word that right wingers have used repeatedly as an accusation against President Obama, to conflate his fairly standard brand of liberalism with some sort of Red Menace. But for his own part, Sanders has long been proud of the label.

But what does socialism actually mean? And might Bernie really be in the mainstream, if he can just convince people to admit it?

Notably, Sanders has often defined the word “socialist” for American audiences by invoking the many democratic-socialist, social democratic, or labor parties of European countries — perhaps to encourage people to realize that these ideas are actually practiced in various forms in many places, and might not be so unrealistic for America.

In an interview this week with The Des Moines Register, Sanders was asked about this forbidden S-word:

Democratic socialism is taking a hard look at what countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway (and) Finland … have done over the years and try to ascertain what they have done that is right, in terms of protecting the needs of millions of working families and the elderly and the children. And I think there’s much that we can learn from those countries that have had social democratic governments and labor governments or whatever.

Sanders also pointed to some concrete legacies of socialist activism in America, which people now take for granted as the ideas were taken up by people in power:

If you look at what people in the 1920s in the Socialist party were saying — the idea of a 40-hour work week, time-and-a-half for overtime, the right for workers to engage in collective bargaining.

The struggle for civil rights in this country, for women’s rights in this country.

All of that came — gay rights — all of that came from strong grassroots political movements, which ended up filtering up to the top.

Sanders reiterated a similar theme in this interview with Katie Couric on Yahoo News, shortly after he launched his presidential campaign.

In a 1989 appearance on C-SPAN, Sanders declare that America needed a third party from the left — saying while that he had supported Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, he remained very critical of the idea of pursuing change within the Democratic Party. Yet even back then, he was invoking the comparisons to social-democratic and labor parties in Europe. He also cited the democratic-socialist party in Canada, as a positive example. (More about them later.)

Of course, a lot of things can change over the years, and as a practicing politician Sanders has learned to get along fine as a member of the Democratic caucus in Washington after he was first elected to Congress in 1990, though never formally joining the party. And now, he is himself doing what he once criticized Jesse Jackson for — seeking progressive change as a Democratic presidential candidate — and it’s working out pretty nicely for him so far, with an impressive and growing base of support.

When Sanders appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers a few weeks ago, he used his typical line about how America could look to these other democratic-socialist countries to see how it could improve itself. “Some have tried to frame you as this fringe candidate,” Meyers said. “but a lot of things you believe, the majority of Americans believe.”

At first glance, however, many Americans might associate the words “socialism” or even “democratic socialism” with the early 20th-century definitions involving direct government ownership and control of industry. But this is hardly true anymore in the democratic world — not even for political parties that still call themselves socialist.

A famous example of this shift occurred in the 1990s when the Labour Party in the United Kingdom was modernized. Under the “New Labour” movement, Tony Blair changed the party’s longstanding “Clause Four.” First adopted in 1918, this clause in the party’s platform had committed Labour to the nationalization of industry. By ending that campaign plank in 1995, Blair got Labour ready to finally win a national election after having been out of power continuously since 1979 and after the mass privatizations under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Blair won the 1997 election in a landslide, absolutely routing the Tories, and Labour went on to hold office until 2010.

But Americans might also find an impressive example of a longer, slower evolution — with many intermediate stages — much closer to our own country.

Looking to the north, we can see this evolution of democratic socialism in the history of the New Democratic Party of Canada. Founded in 1933, originally calling itself the “Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation,” the CCF of that era responded to the depths of the Great Depression with a truly radical platform. Its founding document, known as the Regina Manifesto, called for a full centrally planned economy, and concluded as followed:

No CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.

Existing as a third party, the CCF won election in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944, and would go on to pioneer greater government involvement in health care, labor law, public infrastructure, transportation, and social services. Indeed, the party’s single greatest accomplishment arguably is Canada’s single-payer medical system — which was co-opted by both the Liberals and the Conservatives in the 1960s.

By 1956, the party made its first major step at modernization, releasing a revised platform called the Winnipeg Declaration, which dropped the outright call to eradicate capitalism. Later the CCF relaunched as the New Democratic Party, as part of a formal alliance with the country’s organized labor movement. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Regina Manifesto, the NDP issued a new statement of principles in 1983 that took some rhetorical steps away from centralized control:

Finally, socialists believe that social ownership is an essential means to achieve our goals. This means not simply the transfer of title of large enterprises to the state. We believe in decentralized ownership and control, including co-operatives and credit unions, greater public accountability, and progressive democratization of the workplace.

For many years, and until just very recently, the NDP had revised its democratic socialist mission in terms that were still highly critical of capitalism. The NDP has governed several provinces on and off, but long remained in third place at the federal level.

Then a huge breakthrough occurred in 2011: The NDP came in second place in a national election, displacing the once-mighty Liberal Party. At this point, NDP leaders began looking at still more modernization, in order to present themselves as a viable government-in-waiting. (In addition, academic opinion had held that the NDP was never a wide-eyed revolutionary party in practice, so the update was really just a formalizing of the party’s longstanding reality.)

In 2013, the NDP’s statement of values was changed to be much more inclusive — to hail progress and diversity, instead of denouncing capitalism and profit:

New Democrats seek a future that brings together the best of the insights and objectives of Canadians who, within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions, have worked through farmer, labour, co-operative, feminist, human rights and environmental movements, and with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada within a global community dedicated to the same goals.

In the most recent polls, the NDP is now taking first place in a close three-way battle against both the incumbent Conservatives as well as the resurgent Liberals. Based on current polls, the NDP could potentially win a plurality of seats — not a full majority, but they could likely form what is known as a “minority government” in Ottawa. Canada’s election will be held on October 19, 2015.

So who knows, perhaps social democracy — the modernized, democratic socialist ideal of activist government — could have a growing appeal even in North America, after all.

Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

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