Making Socialism 'Cool' Again

An analysis of Bernie Sanders' message

15 minutes to read
Jenske Vermeulen


Bernie Sanders labels himself as a democratic socialist. In America, this normally means you stay stuck in the margins. Contrary to that assumption, Sanders is scoring more than expected. In this paper, I will analyze how Sanders constructs his 'socialist' message and what makes it popular.



Critics say that Sanders tackles the issues with socialist answers. Meaning do not vote for him. As we know, in American society the term Socialism comes with a lot of negative associations. Bernie Sanders does not deny his socialist ideology.  On the contrary, he is trying to dissolve the misunderstandings of this ideology which he acknowledges is part of his identity. 

In The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (19 September 2015) Sanders clarified why he did not 'take socialist as the insult it is meant to be'. He notes that countries in Scandinavia that achieved rights like healthcare and free college for everyone are better off. Sanders is waging a discursive war: He tries to redefine the meaning of socialism in America (Maly, 2016). For him, socialism means that to improve the nation, the government must represent working people and the middle class instead of large campaign donors (Levin, 2015).  He believes in a better society with the help of governmental support. Bernie Sanders is convinced that a more socialist approach can achieve this society and that is why he does not take it as an insult on his identity.

In this essay, I will investigate how he deals with the critique of his identity and what role socialism or his democratic socialist position has in the way he tackles the issues. The main focus in this essay will lay on ‘message’ and ‘issue’ (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). Message is shaped as brand, by the candidate, the counter-candidates and the different media. The candidate is described by his characteristics, his identity and the way in which he or she tackles issues. The way in which Bernie Sanders tackles the issues constructs his identity and let us determine what role his socialist democratic position plays in his message. Message, and thereby brand, is dynamic and differential but at the same time it is still a structured collection of associations which are coherent to each other and form the candidate (Lempert & Silverstein 2012).  

I monitored articles from two newspapers in the United States: The New York Times and the New York Post. These articles will be analyzed as part of the ‘message’ construction. I chose to study the New York Times and New York Post because of their political positioning. The New York Times is perceived as a newspaper which shows a bias in favour of liberals (Rasmussen Report, 2007). In contrast, the New York Post is listed as rather conservative. I've made a selection of articles published in these papers between October till December 2015. I included all articles on Bernie Sanders that described him as a (democratic) socialist. The critique and description of Sanders in these articles help to see what is said about him in the media. Next to these newspaper-data, I also analyze two speeches Bernie Sanders gave at CNN and at Georgetown University.


Bernie Sanders according to The New York Times

The articles in The New York Times give a reserved view towards Bernie Sanders, his democratic socialism and the identity he creates with the political label he puts on himself. The articles are of an observing kind and explain what is happening in de candidacy of Bernie Sanders. The New York Times tells the story of Bernie Sanders in a descriptive form and as such they give his brand a definition and meaning (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). The following quote from the article: Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist is illustrative of the general tone:

“After all, Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize the steel mills or the auto companies or even the banks. Like Mrs. Clinton, he believes in a mixed economy, where capitalist institutions are mediated through taxes and regulation. He just wants more taxes and more regulation than Mrs. Clinton does. He certainly seems like a regular Democrat, only more so.” (Barro, 2015)

First of all, in this quote an overall generalization of someone who has some socialist ideas is given. Afterwards this is disputed by saying that Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize and thus does not want such a big influence of the government. The critique on his ‘socialist’ ideas is thus liberalized. He is no socialist, but a social Democrat. 

Secondly, Bernie Sanders cites Denmark to explain democratic socialism; “...which has very high taxes, very generous social programs and a robust economy driven by private capital investment, as an example of a place that does social democracy really well.” We, again, see how Sanders redifines his socialism. The New York Times goes along in that redefinition, but the legitimacy of his example is questioned by Matt Yglesias of Vox. Seemingly,  The New York Times gives the readers the opportunity to form their own opinion on the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders.

This manner of presenting himself, is dangerous for Sanders.

Another article of The New York Times, Bernie Sanders, Your cool socialist grandpa, showed a similar approach, identifying and describing the identity of Bernie Sanders:

“Mr. Sanders is ideologically pure at a time when everything and everyone else in Democratic Washington seems to revolve around compromise. And as this primary is proving, many Democrats (and even some Republicans) are frustrated with compromise. In some way, Mr. Sanders’s appeal stems from his own un-electability.” (Roller, 2015)

The progressivity of Bernie Sanders makes him a man of change. This manner of presenting himself is, according to the article, dangerous. It could lead to his own un-electability. The disadvantage of Sanders’ position is that he may be too progressive in times where everything seems to revolve around compromise. In the same article, numbers are given of people who have a positive view of ‘socialism’. The percentages of the people between the ages of 18 to 29 years are especially emphasized because they have a much more positive view of socialism then “..their parents probably never would have considered” (Roller, 2015). The democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders is pointed out as something young people are warming up for. The New York Times clearly does not deny the impact his ideas have: But describes his socialism as dangerous, naive and un-electable.


Bernie Sanders according to the New York Post

In contrast with the framing in The New York Times, a sarcastic and sharp tone is noticeable when explaining the identity of Bernie Sanders in the New York Post. In the following ? ( ) deriving from Count out Bernie Sanders at your own peril written by Andrea Peyser, he is described as a laughable person: “His head lodged firmly ­between his shoulders like Richard Nixon, his arms waving around spastically, he spoke with an accent heavy on the dropped Rs of his native Brooklyn (as in “black lives matt-uh’’). 

Bernie Sanders, 74, played the crotchety old man on the porch screaming at kids, “Get off my lawn!’’ (Peyser, 2015). The prescribed identity of Bernie Sanders is constructed out of emblematic features. These are features which are part of a cluster and most of the time represent a stereotype (Blommaert and Varis, 2011). Bernie Sanders' emblematic features are his looks, his accent and the way he stands up tall which makes him a ‘crotchety old man’.

Wherein the articles of the New York Times the comparison with Denmark is criticized on an exploratory level, here it is fiercely objected: “Denmark was ranked as the world’s third-most atheistic country in 2005 and the nation’s rate of adult and teen alcohol consumption is off the charts. Given a choice, I’ll skip drunken, overtaxed Godlessness” (Peyser, 2015). A research about religion from 2005 is used as an example that Denmark is not such a good country as Bernie Sanders describes.

Another clear statement is made in Sorry, Bernie — Scandinavia is no socialist paradise after all.. From the article follows that “Bernie Sanders is the most prominent conspiracy theorist in America. He runs around the country alleging that the economy is “rigged” by what he calls “the billionaire class.” (Lowry, 2015) A few paragraphs later the following is stated “But sometimes it’s ill-advised to try to engage with an inflamed, hands-waving believer in a wild conspiracy theory. It’s best just to nod and back away: Yes, Bernie, it is all rigged. Whatever you say...” 

Bernie Sanders is compared with a conspiracy theorist and, according to the author, we should never believe those kinds of people. In the eyes of the author, it would be the best in this case to just nod and back away. The disgusthe ideas of Bernie Sanders is visible in the article by usage of words like ‘what he calls..’ and‘ inflamed, hand-waving believer in a wild conspiracy theory’.

The New York Post is invoking the way Bernie Sanders is perceived by the reader of the article. This reshaping of political communication is commonly done by new structured political interest (Lempert and Silverstein, 2012: 61). Rupert Murdoch, the man behind this newspaper has a preference for the conservative side of politics. His newspapers align with his own vision (Ornstein, 2016). The ‘origin’ of a newspaper can influence the content.

So both The New York Times and the New York Post frame Sanders as a social democrate or even a socialist. Both think he is too radical. Both question his discourse. Still, whereas the New York Times focuses on the issues, the New York Post tackles his identity as an atheist, a grumpy old man.The New York Times is a Democratic paper and supports Hillary Clinton, whereas the New York Post is conservative.


The discourse of Bernie Sanders

From the beginning of Bernie Sanders’ political career he focused on the content of his actions.The content of his speeches are not aimed at telling more about himself as a person but are rather aimed at trying to be a 'good' politician addressing the issues. By doing this, he also creates a definition of what should be noted as common, normal and expected. He communicates himself as an authentic issues man, not as a branded politician. (Maly, 2015).

A ‘speech delivering’ Bernie Sanders.


In order to analyse the discourse of Sanders, I will look into two communicative events of Bernie Sanders: Bernie Sanders talking in the CNN debate for democratic candidates and Bernie Sanders' speech at Georgetown University.With discourse, I refer to the collection of all forms of meaningful semiotic human activity seen in relation with social, cultural and historical patterns and developments of use (Blommaert, 2015:3).


CNN debate 

A first observation shows that, in the beginning of the CNN debate, the candidates get the chance to present themselves to the audience. Instead of talking about his background or his function like the other candidates do, Bernie Sanders starts off with the following sentence: “I think most Americans understand that our country today faces a series of unprecedented crises.” Bernie Sanders, from the start, is showing himself as the authentic issue man . 

He points out the importance of a number of issues like the “campaign finance system which is corrupt undermining American democracy.” When he is asked about him being a democratic socialist he first wants to explain it. "And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent - almost - own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”

Furthermore, he gives examples to justify his argument that medical and family paid leave should be accessible for every American. He justifies this by saying that every “..other major country [is] providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States”.

Sanders clearly doesn't hide his socialist ideology. His discourse is in line with the socialist goal of creating a better world: He critiques inequality and targets the wealthy, the business class and Wall Street in particular. He also adopts the discourse of the Occupy Wall street movement. Sanders describes the immorality of how the top one-tenth of 1 percent own almost 90 percent of the wealth in America. This is critique on the capitalist system nowadays, a world without any balance and an unequal distribution of the money.


Speech at Georgetown University 

As in the CNN Democratic debate, Sanders’ is not introducing himself in his speech at Georgetown University but immediately gets to the content of his speech by saying “I think my message to you all is a pretty simple one, and that is our country faces some enormous problems….” After this statement he continues his speech with motivational words for his audience. He is standing in front of a large group of university students and wants to convince them that they are the ones who can better the world. He uses addressivity very well, “the quality of being directed to someone”, with familiar resources, the pronoun “You’re” is used to directly talk to the students (Lempert and Silverstein, 2012: 110). He also makes them aware that this is their chance to start a political revolution together with him, and that revolution is not something bad, but something that will create a more just society.

“You’re getting a great education here in Georgetown, and I hope very much that you will use what you have learned here to fight to create a better world and to follow in the traditions of so many people for so many years who have struggled to create a more democratic and just society.”

Afterwards, he takes his audience back in time by referring to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the actions he undertook to boost the society during the great depression. Sanders points out the fact that Roosevelt implemented a series of government funded programs. In the end of this statement, he notes the label put upon these programs; socialist: “And by the way, almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea he introduced was called socialist. I thought I would mention that just in passing."  

During his speech, the following words are repeated a couple of times: “Democratic socialism means to me...”. Repetition helps the public to remember and recognize the importance of a message, but, of course, he also makes explicit that socialism 'to him' means something very specific, not to be associated with all the doom-messages his adversaries are spreading around. He aligns 'his socialism' with the project of Roosevelt, and thus positions it as truly American;

Bernie Sanders does not hide the fact that he is a socialist or a Social Democrat.

Further in his speech, he repeatedly mentions what democratic socialism means to him by explaining it with examples from people’s daily lives and history of American society. Take for example the following quote in which he talks about the 1980s: “Democratic socialism to my mind speaks to a system which for example during the 1980s (and I want you to hear this) allowed Wall street to spend 5 billion dollars over a ten year period in lobbying and campaign contributions in order to get deregulated.” In this quote, he gives an example of the injustice and negative sides of the economic system. Ending this part of his speech with the following statement where he again underlines the importance of equality on an economic level, one of his issues regularly discussed: “We’ve got to stop worshipping people who make billions and billions and billions of dollars. While we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the world.

In this speech, he thus not only immediately addresses the students directly and triggers them not to judge his socialist ideas but admire them and understand them as 'American' and as something good for everybody. He also makes them aware that this is their chance to start a political revolution together with him. 


An issues man

We have seen numerous issues passing in articles and speeches where Bernie Sanders was quoted. In what follows, I shall try to give a short outline of these issues which are presented to an ‘online’ as well as an ‘offline’ audience. 

First of all, income and wealth inequality play an important part as issues discussed by Bernie Sanders. He often starts a speech with them, as could be seen in the speeches at Georgetown University and at the CNN debate. Afterwards, he gives his view on how the society must function: more decent paying jobs and tuition and debt free college for all. Other issues which are described on his website? are combating climate change to save the planet, immigration policy, racial justice, fighting for women’s rights and so on. 

All this issues have one overlapping goal, creating a better world and environment to live in. Bernie Sanders is thus consistently communicating a specific identity, he is ‘on message’ (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012).

In new media he is ‘on message’; uploading speeches of him explaining democratic socialism or speeches on free education, posting and retweeting his own quotes and lastly, posting photos of him performing a speech in front of a large audience. Most of the time these speeches are in public spaces like schools, churches and so on. He talks about the issues and wants to tackle the problems facing America to better the world for the people he gave the speeches to.

Bernie Sanders does not hide the fact that he is a socialist or a Social Democrat. On the contrary, he cleaverly uses it to create leverage for his take on the issues. He is waging a discursive battle and in doing so, he is, on the one hand, creating a new meaning of what it means to be a socialist. On the other hand, he is presenting himself as an authentic issues man. The best known example is probably this one“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails’ Sanders said. “Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America”.

By taking the spotlight away from the emails of Clinton, Sanders communicates that he is not running for president to discuss the small things. He is here to address the real issues

This is what Bernie Sanders said in a debate in reaction to the email scandal involving Hillary Clinton. Hillary received tons of criticism for using a personal email address and not a email account when she was secretary of state in 2009. The problem with using her personal email address for government related emails was that this personal email address is much easier to hack for cybercriminals and consequently, could’ve compromised the security of government related emails. When this news came out it resulted in a huge blow for Clinton’s credibility. Since then, this was an easy target for her opponents in the race for the US presidency. Bernie’s reaction, however, defines Sanders’ political goal saying that he does not want to talk about small things happening nowadays: he wants to discuss the big things that matter and which determine the lives of people.

Noticeably, Sanders does not want to hurt Clinton’s campaign in such a way, which is extraordinary since he is in a ‘presidential race’ against her. He does not want to put her in a bad light but is being a gentleman and wants to play it fair. By taking the spotlight away from the emails of Clinton he does not only help her but also strengthens his own message that he is not running for president to discuss the small things but that he is there to discuss the real issues. Such a message can best be defined as the politician’s publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere’ (Lempert and Silverstein, 2012: 1).  

He presents himself as an issues -man, not willing to tackle the other with slander. . A clear overview of the issues he stands for are collected  on his website. For example Sanders discussed the economic situation in the U.S.A., climate change, immigration policy, women’s rights and making college tuition free. By tackling certain issues, Sanders gains some sort of power which clarifies his message. In addition, it is the manner of addressing the issues as a candidate that helps creating the brand ‘Bernie’ (Lempert and Silverstein, 2012: 1).

In sum, his message is strengthened by exploiting the label of democratic socialist in a clever way. By acknowledging that he indeed is a socialist, he - even in the context of capitalist America, reinforces his story and creates a distinction from the other candidates (Lempert and Silverstein, 2012; 26).


Democratic socialism and authenticity 

Bernie Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist. He is scoring with a socialist inspired discourse within capitalist America.  Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialism is visible when he is discussing all kinds of social rights like income equality, good education and other changes that must be made. It is also visible in both political communication events where Sanders immediately wants to explain his ideology in favour of himself and by doing so, strengthening his message. This position not only generates criticism, but also success. By not denying his ideological stance in a context that is in general not favourable to socialism, he at least positions himself as honest and authentic. Thus paradoxically, by admitting he is a democratic socialist within capitalist America, he presents himself as an ‘authentic issues man’. As a consequence, he strengthens his own message which altogether results in a strong presidential candidate.



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