When Bernie Sanders became the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the city broke into a near panic.
It was 1981 and headlines such as, "'Everyone's scared.' Socialist elected mayor of Vermont's largest city," were strewn across the front pages. Business owners warned that he was going to run them into the ground.
What happened was just about the complete opposite. As Ben Schreckinger reported for Politico back in May, Sanders introduced policies like free arts for the public, taking money from rich non-profits and "communal land for affordable housing." At the time, his policies — much like his present-day calls for free tuition and universal healthcare — were criticized as radical, socialist ideas that would tear apart the core of America from the inside out.
Today, free arts culture, affordable housing and checks and balances on rich non-profits are common and well-regarded features of government across the country. In fact, the man who wrote that headline back in 1981— Dan Kaplan, then the Democratic Party chairman — donated to Sanders' campaign this year.
So why can't our country elect or get behind someone that describes himself as a "democratic socialist"? The truth is simply that there is no good reason. Let's take a look at the three main attacks against Sanders, along with the important policies he's pushing:
1. He's a socialist
The first thing I do when I hear someone say "socialist" with a negative connotation is ask them if they know what socialism is. Here is the definition, according to Google: "a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole."
Essentially, socialism advocates for a more collective economic community, one where 50 million people don't go hungry like they currently do in America (in case you're wondering, that's the amount of people that live in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose and Austin combined).
Now, for rich corporations or wealthy Americans, that idea can be scary. But the truth is Sanders isn't looking for a giant socialist overhaul. In fact, America is already a kind of socialist country. We partially socialize medicine. We socialize the military. We socialize public libraries, police, postal service, student loans and even public schools. As Al Jazeera's John Stoehr said: "to some degree or another, the government has always got involved in the economy: the railroads, the Homestead Act, the power grid, the interstate highway system, and the internet."
What we have to understand is Bernie Sanders isn't trying to turn us into a country we aren't supposed to be; he simply wants us to take better care of the poor, the elderly, the suffering, our veterans and — yes, our immigrants. The American disdain for socialism is rooted in Cold War propaganda that becomes more outdated every day. In fact, 36 percent of millennials say they view socialism favorably and only 39 percent say the same about capitalism — a near tie.
"They're such hypocrites," Bill Maher once said of those who vilify socialism. "They hate socialism but they live on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, unemployment benefits. All this money but they hate socialism."
2. "Price Tag of Bernie Sanders's Proposals: $18 Trillion"
That was the headline of perhaps the most damaging and widely read article on Senator Sanders. Published by the Wall Street Journal, the story was ostensibly backed up by data from economist Gerald Friedman.
But shortly after the story went viral, Friedman wrote an open letter for the Huffington Post explaining that the "hit piece" used his data in a misleading way.
"The Journal correctly puts the additional federal spending for health care under HR 676 (a single payer health plan) at $15 trillion over ten years," he wrote. "It neglects to add, however, that by spending these vast sums, we would, as a country, save nearly $5 trillion over ten years in reduced administrative waste, lower pharmaceutical and device prices, and by lowering the rate of medical inflation."
His conclusion? "With these net savings, the additional $14.7 trillion in federal spending brings savings to the private sector (and state and local governments) of over $19.7 trillion."
3. The "sexist" moment with Hillary Clinton
The most recent, and perhaps most confusing hit on Sanders, is that he's a sexist. That absurd notion was born out of an exchange Sanders had with Clinton during the first televised Democratic debate.
While arguing about his stance on gun control, Sanders told Clinton that "All the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence."
Within two weeks, Clinton was referring to the exchange with a peculiar undertone. "I've been told to stop, and I quote, 'shouting' about gun violence. Well, first of all, I'm not shouting. It's just [that] when women talk, some people think we're shouting."
That sentiment was echoed by her campaign team and received wild applause and cheer from those in the stands on her campaign. The problem is, though, Sanders telling Clinton to stop shouting had nothing to do with her being a woman. His point was that people in America from rural and urban areas have very different opinions on gun control, and often the conversations devolve into yelling.
In the same debate, Sanders said to Martin O'Malley — a man — "Here is the point, governor. We can raise our voices. But I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not."
Slate's William Saletan had a great report on how "Sanders gives this answer to everyone."
"We have been yelling and screaming at each other about guns for decades," he said in July. "People on both sides of this issue cannot simply continue shouting at each other," he said in October. "I can get beyond the noise and all of these arguments and people shouting at each other," he said in August.
If you take a look at Sander's voting record on women, it speaks for itself. He is either a co-sponsor or voted yes on every single bill that involved improving women's rights, according to VoteSmart.org.
So what else makes Sanders the best candidate? Let's take a rapid fire look at 9 reasons Senator Sanders has a leg up on other candidates:
He is the unquestionably the most experienced. Sanders has served in the U.S. Senate since 2006 and served in the House of Representatives for 16 years before that. He was the longest serving independent member of Congress before declaring as a Democrat for his presidential run this year. In a race where some of the candidates have absolutely no political experience, Sanders' experience should be seen as his most valuable asset. It will take someone with intimate knowledge of how our government works to unite Washington.
He is running a campaign by the people for the people. Sanders has not taken a single dollar from the major corporations that are funding almost all the other candidates. In fact, Sanders raised $26 million as of October 1st, nearly matching Hillary Clinton ($28 million). But he did it with only seven fundraising events, compared to her 58. And his donations came from 650,000 individuals, while other candidates receive most of their money from Super-PACs.
He is the most aggressive in tackling climate change. Sanders helped secure a 3.2 billion economic stimulus package that helped upgrade 86,000 buildings and install more than 9,500 solar energy systems. He opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. He helped lead the way on taxing carbon and methane emissions. "The scientific community is telling us if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable," Sanders said. "That is a major crisis."
He understands the need for prison reform. In my opinion, the root issue of our country's racial tensions and the biggest factor in the devastation of low-income minority communities has been the War on Drugs. Sanders understands that despite similar rates of drug use across all races, blacks have been imprisoned at six times the rate of whites and the result is poor families, tension with police, crime in urban areas and non-violent criminals having their lives ruined. He plans to change that. "It is morally repugnant and a national tragedy that we have privatized prisons all over America. In my view, corporations should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars. We have got to end the private-for-profit prison racket in America. I intend to introduce legislation that will end the private prison industry."
He wants to do more by doing less with foreign policy. As the former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, he has seen the cost of war first-hand. Sanders, amazingly, is the only candidate to refer to war as the "last resort" in conflict with another nation. He was alone among the other candidates in his opposition to the disastrous Iraq War.
He will go after the incredibly rich Wall Street bankers who destroyed our economy. After one of country's biggest financial crisis, U.S. taxpayers spent over $700 billion bailing out very same big banks that caused the crash in the first place. Sanders is ready to go after these financial institutions, which hold "assets equal to 60% of the nation's gross domestic product," according to his website. He has introduced the "Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act," which requires regulators to figure out which financial institutions pose a risk to the economy because of their size. He defended Glass-Steagall provisions and even proposed a financial transaction tax. Of all the candidates, Sanders is most committed to breaking up Wall Street and helping Middle Class America get its money back.
He understands the complexities of gun control. After the first democratic debate, Sanders received a good deal of criticism over his gun control voting record. The truth is, he has the ideal combination of experience governing a rural pro-gun state and the desire to reform gun laws favored by many Americans. As Sanders said in the debate, the NRA issued him a D- lifetime voting record, which is a good sign for anyone who wants gun reform. But he has also protected gun owners when he felt it was right, and his more centrist attitude is exactly what we need now if we're going to move forward on this crucial issue.
He has realistic ideas about immigration reform. Sanders is ready to bring the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America out of the shadows and into the workforce. He will sign the DREAM Act into law, which will grant residency to immigrants that were brought here as children. His aim is to embrace and include immigrants now, just like our country always has. And the economists back him: even the U.S. Department of Labor study pushed by the Bush Administration discredited the idea that immigrants take away American jobs. "Instead, they create new jobs by forming new businesses, spending their incomes on American goods and services, paying taxes and raising the productivity of U.S. businesses," the ACLU notes on its website. "Immigrants are good for the economy, not the other way around."
He wants to take money out of politics. In what may well set him apart most from the field of presidential hopefuls, Sanders is on a mission to remove big money from politics. Our Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United decision in 2010 handed the wealthiest people in our country the keys to the U.S. Government. Now more than ever, politicians with the most power are under the influence of rich backers. Except for Sanders, who has run a campaign without the help of major corporate donors and has continued to vote in the best interest of this American people. This, like the eight other reasons on this list, make him one of the most important presidential candidates this country has seen in decades.
Cover image: Scott Olson/Getty Images