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Sanders Gives Speech On 'Democratic Socialism.' Will It Affect Voter Perception?

Sen. Bernie Sanders with arms outstretched at a podium and American flags behind him.
Andrew Harnik
Associated Press
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a speech Wednesday at George Washington University, making a case for "democratic socialism."

How American voters view the concept of "socialism" could have an enormous impact on the 2020 presidential race, and Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders made his case for "democratic socialism" in a major campaign address Wednesday at George Washington University.

While some Republicans, including President Donald Trump, attempt to link socialism with communism, Sanders is defending what he calls the core principles of democratic socialism and their important role in the economic history of the United States.

In his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump laid the foundation for what he hopes will be one of the key themes of the 2020 presidential race: a criticism of progressive Democratic candidates, like Sanders, who are supporting programs such as "Medicare for All," free college tuition, and higher taxes on the wealthy. During that speech, Trump referred to these types of policies as being anti-American and examples of socialism.

And attacks on socialism are also coming from some of the more moderate Democratic presidential candidates, such as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In Wednesday's speech, Sanders took the chance to address the issue of democratic socialism head on. 

Watch the speech, via Sanders' Facebook page, below (On mobile? Click here to watch):

Sanders argues that the policies of democratic socialism have long been a key part of efforts to promote economic justice in this country, and he said Wednesday that his current proposals are a continuation of the policies first proposed 80 years ago by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal."

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families," Sanders said in his speech. "Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion."

Sanders also said Trump supports his own type of socialism by providing huge tax breaks to big corporations and wealthy people.

"And that is the difference between Donald Trump and me," Sanders said. "He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful. I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country."

Sen. Bernie Sanders is pictured here giving a speech about democratic socialism at Georgetown University on Nov. 19, 2015. Now undertaking his second presidential run, he gave a speech on the topic Wednesday at George Washington University.

Ted Kohn, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norwich University, said he thinks this is a critical issue for Sanders to address, especially since it didn't receive much attention during the 2016 race.

"You don't have to scratch Bernie Sanders too much to find underneath, you know, kind of a deep well of socialism," Kohn said. "How will Democratic voters at-large, how will Americans at large, respond to this? And that's something I don't think he's ever been forced to fully answer to on a national stage."

Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson questions if the phrase "socialism" has the negative connotation that it had several decades ago.

"It remains to be seen if you can simply say 'socialism, socialism, socialism' and that would be enough," Dickinson said. "If Bernie Sanders is responding, 'Well by socialism, I mean expanding the opportunity for health insurance, I mean earning a decent wage,' it's not clear to me that socialism by itself is going to be enough of a bogeyman to scare voters away from Sanders."

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And according to UVM political science professor Ellen Andersen, how voters perceive socialism could be influenced by their age. She said the concept "is not going to bother Bernie's younger voters at all, but may very well trigger older voters ... who have been trained over the course of so many years to associate socialism with, like, terrible anti-Americanism."

Most of the Democratic candidates for president will participate in a series of debates at the end of the month, and it's likely that moderate candidates will express concern about the liberal direction of their party.

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