Exactly What Kind Of Socialist Is Bernie Sanders? : It's All Politics Socialists are a rare breed of political animal in this country. There's just one in Congress — Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Exactly What Kind Of Socialist Is Bernie Sanders?

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To most American voters, a socialist is an exotic species of political animal. And yet, that's how Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has described himself throughout his career. Sanders has not run from the label even as his presidential campaign gets more attention and supporters. Vermont Public Radio's John Dillon examines what socialism means to Sanders.

JOHN DILLON, BYLINE: The S word isn't one Sanders often uses on the campaign trail, but he doesn't run away from it either. Here's how he tackled the term when asked recently by a reporter from Vermont Public Radio.

BERNIE SANDERS: You have known me for a few years. Do I go around saying, hey Bob, I'm the self-avowed socialist? You know, it's what media does.

DILLON: Webster's Dictionary defines socialism as a government that owns or controls major industries. Marxist theory says socialism is the transitional stage of society between capitalism and communism. But that's not what Sanders is talking about.

SANDERS: What I am trying to do during this campaign is to tell Americans what many of them don't know, is that the benefits for working people are a lot, lot stronger in many other countries around the world.

DILLON: Sanders says the kind of socialism he advocates is the democratic socialism seen in Scandinavia and other countries in Europe. His campaign platform includes proposals for paid sick leave, single-payer health care, stronger labor unions and free or low-cost higher education.

GARRISON NELSON: This is not communism, this is not five-year plans and collectivized agricultural and nationalized industry - no.

DILLON: Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, has observed Sanders throughout his political career. Back in 1981, when Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Nelson says reporters from Europe called him because what they viewed as normal in politics was considered an aberration in the States. Nelson says he told them...

NELSON: It's a relatively mild - I would say a vanilla socialism, but it's basically focused on big businesses and capitalist inequalities.

DILLON: Socialism has been a loaded term in U.S. politics for a century, says Eric Davis. He's a retired political scientist at Middlebury College.

ERIC DAVIS: There are some voters for whom the term socialist has un-American connotations, and that's something that's built up over a long time over American history.

DILLON: It's still a loaded term today. Republicans often accuse President Obama of being a socialist, and the S word has been thrown at Sanders by Democrats. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill serves with Sanders but supports former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think the media is giving Bernie a pass right now. I very rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he's a socialist.

DILLON: Sanders says it's no secret that he's always been a socialist, and he's easily won many races for mayor and Congress over the past 30 years. In those races, he ran as an independent candidate, not a member of any socialist party. But for the presidential primary, he's running as a Democrat.

At a recent Sanders event in northern New Hampshire, voters were not put off by the socialist label. Fran Lavoie says she cares more about Sanders's policy proposals.

FRAN LAVOIE: Oh, his being a socialist or a democratic socialist has never been an obstacle to me. What he is is a person who is interested in people.

DILLON: A recent Gallup poll showed more Americans would vote for an atheist or Muslim than a socialist. Still, Sanders said the numbers were surprisingly good since they showed 47 percent of the electorate would vote for a socialist. He says that percentage will increase as his campaign continues. For NPR News, I'm John Dillon.

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