Bernie Sanders to defend his brand of socialism in speech

Lauren Gambino in Washington
Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders, draping himself in the progressive tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, is poised to defend his political philosophy in a speech that accuses Donald Trump of profiting from “corporate socialism”.

In a speech at George Washington University on Wednesday, the Democratic party presidential contender for 2020 will outline a distinctly American brand of socialism as he forcefully rebuts attacks on democratic socialism from the president and other senior Republicans.

“While President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism,” Sanders will say, according to excerpts of his speech distributed on Tuesday by his campaign. “They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires.”

Sanders will describe democratic socialism as a reflection of deeply held American values like fairness and equality as he calls for a reimagining of the US economy.

“Over 80 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made huge progress in protecting the needs of working families,” he will say. “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. This is the unfinished business of the Democratic party and the vision we must accomplish.”

Since Sanders ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016, public perception of democratic socialism has shifted remarkably.

The Vermont senator, an independent who registered as a Democrat to run for president, is no longer the only member of Congress to embrace the label; membership to the group Democratic Socialists of America has soared; a majority of House Democrats support universal healthcare; and at least one survey found that more young people prefer socialism to capitalism.

But as the ideology becomes more popular, it has invited more attacks from the right. During his State of the Union address this year, Trump vowed that the US will “never be a socialist country”. Sanders, seated in the audience, remained stone-faced.

His philosophy has also faced pushback from his own party. At a recent party event in California, presidential candidate John Hickenlooper was booed by party activists when he declared: “If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer.”

Hickenlooper was joined by rival John Delaney, who dismissed “slogans posing as policies”. “Medicare for All may sound good. But it’s actually not good policy, nor is it good politics,” he added.

Sanders trails Joe Biden in many early primary polls but recent surveys show him beating Trump by similar margins in hypothetical head-to-heads.

Part of Sanders’ success in the primary depends on persuading Democrats that he is the strongest candidate to take on Trump. He has repeatedly argued that Trump’s election proved voters are hungry for big ideas – and that the nominee should be a movement builder who can energize the electorate with a progressive vision.

At the California event, Sanders denounced “middle ground” policies in a thinly veiled swipe at Biden, a more moderate Democrat who largely rejects Sanders’ brand of politics.

“We cannot go back to the old ways,” Sanders said. “We have got to go forward with a new and progressive agenda.”