Having seen the German Social Democratic Party push neoliberal policies for the last decade and a half, and enthusiastically backing Angela Merkel's Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies, the "socialist" label has become pretty vague in practice. The SPD is one of the Ur-socialist parties, with Karl Marx as one of its co-founders. Although today's SPD prefers to stick with Ferdinand Lasalle as their founder.
Here I'll quote David Conradt's article, Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) Encyclopædia Britannica (accessed 02/06/2016). He doesn't talk about Marx' role in the merger of the two predecessor parties but it's a good sketch of classical European socialism of the late 19th century:
The SPD traces its origins to the merger in 1875 of the General German Workers’ Union, led by Ferdinand Lassalle, and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, headed by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. In 1890 it adopted its current name, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The party’s early history was characterized by frequent and intense internal conflicts between so-called revisionists and orthodox Marxists and by persecution by the German government and its chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The revisionists, led at various times by Lassalle and Eduard Bernstein, argued that social and economic justice could be achieved for the working class through democratic elections and institutions and without a violent class struggle and revolution. The orthodox Marxists insisted that free elections and civil rights would not create a truly socialist society and that the ruling class would never cede power without a fight. Indeed, German elites of the late 19th century considered the very existence of a socialist party a threat to the security and stability of the newly unified Reich, and from 1878 to 1890 the party was officially outlawed.Fast-forward to the US and Bernie Sanders, 2016. "Socialism" has been used and misused so much that we have to look at what Sanders himself says about what he means when he uses the word for his own positions. Roberts and Gabbatt give us these glimpses in their not especially sympathetic to Sanders report:
As the only candidate proposing to abolish tuition fees at public universities, Sanders frequently takes on the role of a reverse auctioneer, asking members of the audience at his rallies to shout out how much student debt they have. For a while, the record was $300,000. Then he met a dentist who graduated with loans of $400,000.Tuition-free public colleges and "taxing Wall Street speculation." Of course the One Percent is happy to stigmatize such policies, and will do so no matter who advocates them.
But paying for college by taxing Wall Street speculation is not the only policy that has seen the senator from Vermont branded a dangerous extremist – by his own party. Despite the limited health insurance reforms passed by Barack Obama, 29 million Americans remain without any coverage and many more are underinsured to the point where they cannot afford to see a doctor. [my emphasis]
But are they really terrifying for working and middle class voters? For some, sure. But if "socialism" for Sanders means better access to college, closing remaining gaps on health insurance while better controlling health care costs, taxing and better regulating giant bank, and reducing the currently extreme power of campaign contributors and corporate lobbyists - those things in themselves are not inherently scary for general election voters who aren't already committed Republican voters.
On the last topic, Roberts and Gabbatt write: "The notion, proposed by Sanders, that a corrupt campaign finance system is the only thing standing between voters and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change this might seem simplistic. But it is proving wildly popular."
And they make this important point:
Confusion also stems from the fact that Sanders uses the phrase “democratic socialist” partly to stress his belief that change must come through the ballot box, but also because, in continental Europe at least, he would probably be known as a social democrat, a label that does not easily translate to the US.The first President Clinton never advertised himself with the "socialist" label. On the contrary, he emerged on the national stage as an advocate for the neoliberal "DNC" strategy of giving the Democratic Party a distinctly more conservative image. And when he ran for President in 1992, the supposedly moderate incumbent, Old Man Bush, pulled this: Bill Clinton and the KGB by Paul Wieck Christian Science Monitor 10/15/1992. One of the sleaziest pieces of sleazes US political history. But I doubt in the midst of a Presidential campaign, that Bill's wife is much embarrassed by the following, also reported by Dan Roberts: Sanders smeared as communist sympathiser as Clinton allies sling mud Guardian 01/22/2016.
A “Democrat” in US parlance is something the independent senator from Vermont only became when he decided to seek the party’s presidential nomination in May. Anyone using the word “social” in American politics might as well go the whole hog and add the “ist” before somewhere else does.
Sanders is also calling for a "political revolution" and doing so without embarrassment. When he says this, he makes clear that what he is talking about is more ordinary people getting involved in politics with the goals of reducing the power of organized money and electing a Congress not dominated by Republicans. I'm sure that sounds pretty scary to a lot of Democratic office-holders. But it sounds like a good idea to me. Whether or not we want to quibble about the political-science definition of "revolution."
But we also need to see this in terms of how the right uses the term these days. Sanders parried a question from Anderson Cooper on the term this week by reminding him of the "Reagan Revolution" and the "Gingrich Revolution," terms that haven't bothering the Grand Old Party much.
Then there are our cornpone Duck Dynasty John Calhouns, like the Bundy boys and their fans. Not only such characters, but the NRA that few Republicans are willing to criticize at all, talk about the need for people to have unlimited access to guns in order to fight "tyranny" if the occasion arises. Now a clever pollster or sociologist could surely document that what most white people have in mind when they talk about "tyranny" in this context actually means "black people."
But we don't need any special studies to know that the Republican Party is perfectly comfortable with the formal justification of the need for unlimited gun proliferation as required to fight "tyranny." What would that mean if it ever got more serious than a bunch of fools seizing a building on a wildlife sanctuary? It would basically be applying the techniques of partisan warfare, aka, "terrorism": sabotaging infrastructure like bridges and power stations, ambushes on police and soldiers, assassination of hostile public officials. Ugly stuff even when employed in the best of causes. And our present-day junior John Calhoun's don't have a good cause.
So if the Republican Party's acceptance and encouragement of this kind of revolutionary and seditious rhetoric has persuaded the public to vote the Republican Party out of existence, Bernie Sanders calling for more citizen involvement to make the political system less corrupt is unlikely to send the voters fleeing in panic to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or even the fresh-faced warmonger Marco Rubio.