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Debate: Does Bernie Sanders candidacy signal a socialist shift in the Democratic Party?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, looks on as Sen.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, looks on as Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: AP / John Locher

Bernie Sanders has never made a secret of the fact that considers himself a democratic socialist. But the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate isn't talking about government takeovers of industry. Instead he's calling for more regulation, higher taxes, and universal health care and free college education for all.

Sanders this week announced he would be giving a "major speech" about democratic socialism "fairly soon." But his message seems to be resonating. Sanders is running a close second to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Is the Democratic Party abandoning liberalism for socialism? Is there even a meaningful difference anymore? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate.

JOEL MATHIS: It's a lucky thing for Republicans that Bernie Sanders is a self-described "democratic socialist." It saves conservatives all the work they usually do of trying to convince voters that all Democrats are always socialists.

It's confusing. A recent explainer at Vox - "6 questions about socialism you were too embarrassed to ask" - does a tremendous job laying out the basics for beginners.

First lesson: Socialism isn't the same thing as authoritarian, Soviet-style communism, despite how Republicans often conflate the two.

Second lesson: Democratic socialism usually co-exists with capitalism - though it does tend to restrain capitalism's excesses and distribute capitalism's benefits more widely.

Third lesson: Democratic socialism really is democratic, relying on the support of voters instead of the fiat of tyrannical rulers. Sanders' "revolution" involves getting voters to the polls.

Sanders models his ideas on policies in countries like Sweden and Denmark. "In virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people . college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours," he said in an interview earlier this year.

It doesn't sound all that radical, does it? This generation of Americans has watched too-big-to-fail capitalism nearly destroy the country, middle-class wages stagnate while the rich get richer, and the GOP oppose attempts to fix the underlying problems. No wonder socialism has become a tempting alternative.

Indeed: These days, most Republican voters believe just a few people at the top have a chance to get ahead. Nearly half think the gap between rich and poor should be fixed. More than half favor raising taxes on incomes above $1 million a year. Half favor raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Friends: That's a pretty good start for any democratic socialist agenda. No wonder Republicans are so critical of Sanders and his agenda: He appeals to too many of their voters.

BEN BOYCHUK: You have to admire Bernie Sanders for his honesty. He's never pretended to be anything other than what he is. Sanders is for all the government he can get. Deal with it.

During his bravura Democratic debate performance on stage at the Wynn in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, Sanders was in full class warfare mode, assuring the audience that "Donald Trump and his billionaire friends are going to pay a hell of a lot more in taxes" when he's in charge.

What Sanders wants above all is a good old-fashioned revolution. "The only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need," he said, "is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires." "Bernie, I don't think the revolution's going to come," replied former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Well, what does Webb know? He dropped out of the race this week because his relative social conservatism and mild economic populism are out of step with the Democratic Party's mainstream.

Yet from the left's perspective, Sanders is talking good sense. More benefits! More regulation! More taxes! What's not to like? "What is remarkable about Sanders's platform is how unremarkable it would sound to any run-of-the-mill Democratic politician 40 years ago," observed the left-wing writer Charles Pierce at Esquire, "and how moderate it would have sounded to Eugene V.

Debs, the last major Socialist candidate for president." Exactly. Which is why Sanders' popularity is so troubling. All of a sudden, even Hillary Clinton is trying to co-opt his message.

Ignorance begets ignorance. True, most voters don't understand economics, but Democrats seem to be completely clueless. A recent YouGov poll found that 49 percent of Democrats view socialism more favorably than capitalism. It's worse among the vaunted millennial generation. Among Americans under 30, 39 percent have a favorable view of capitalism and 36 percent have a favorable view of socialism. Behold, the future! Sanders is promising greater freedom through a larger state. None of the Democrats have the nerve to promise greater freedom simply. Some promises are just too extreme for them.

Ben Boychuk ( is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis ( is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.