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What is a democratic socialist? Bernie Sanders tries to redefine the name.

What is a democratic socialist? Bernie Sanders tries to redefine the name.

By David Weigel and David A. Fahrenthold for The Washington Post

When Sen. Bernie Sanders came to speak in Iowa a few months ago, Drake University student Ian Miller snagged a seat on the stage. It was a close-up look at a historic campaign: After decades where socialists were the enemy, a “democratic socialist” had come to town as a serious candidate for president.

What a moment, right?

Right?

“Remind me what a socialist is?” Miller said this week.

A friend, Nik Wasson, tried to explain: “A socialist is someone who believes the government needs to be involved in a lot of aspects of the economy, and social issues as well.”

“Okay,” said Miller, who was born in 1995. “Well, knowing what ‘democratic’ means — and now, knowing again what ‘socialist’ means,” he approved of the combination. “[Sanders] might want to see government have a heavier hand in certain policies,” he said, but “he wants everyone to have a say in it.”

Sanders’s remarkable success this year — in spite of his label as a socialist — is due to a mix of good politics and great timing.

Twenty-four years after the end of the Cold War, many Americans no longer associate socialism with fear or missiles — or with failure, food lines or empty Soviet supermarkets. A word that their elders saw as a slur had become a blank, open for Sanders to define.

And this year, Sanders (I-Vt.) has tried to define it with an eye toward a moderate audience.

He has called for huge growth in government regulation and spending. But he has stayed away from classic socialist ideas, like government takeovers of private industry. And, in his speeches, Sanders has talked about socialism in modest, solidly American terms: It’s nothing more than the pursuit of fairness in a country now rigged by the rich.

So far, it’s worked — but Sanders still hasn’t had to face an opponent determined to use socialism against him.

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