Krugman’s argument can be boiled down to a response he wrote to a commenter: ” [Bernie] calls himself a socialist. I wish he wouldn’t.” He wishes Bernie wouldn’t because it sets him up for an attack Krugman knows is coming from Republicans. The problem for Krugman is that in Sanders’ case the attack a) is true and b) will stick. Given those givens, Krugman does his best to minimize Sanders’ views, suggesting they barely count as socialism at all:

Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark. He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own.

Sanders calls himself a Democratic Socialist not a social democrat. Denmark is more of a social democracy, i.e. a capitalist state with high taxes and a big safety net. So is Bernie just calling himself the wrong thing? And if so why? Krugman speculates about that:

So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie. And this self-indulgence did no harm as long as he was just a senator from a very liberal state.

That’s one way to look at this, i.e. Sanders isn’t really that extreme, he just enjoys shocking people with his “personal branding.” But Krugman fails to point out is that there is lots of evidence a younger Sanders (in his early 30s) really was a Democratic Socialist. Back in the 1970s, he did want to nationalize industries, including the banks.

Has he moderated those opinions? Maybe, but it’s not fair to say he has no interest in nationalize major industries anymore because his top issue as a candidate is Medicare for All, which is essentially nationalizing the health care system.

Krugman is being extremely dishonest when he writes “he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark.” In fact, Sanders has expressed admiration for both. Back in 2011 his website posted a piece from the Valley News Editorial Board which read in part, “These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?” Those aren’t Sanders words and his spokesperson said last year he doesn’t agree with them but they were posted on his website.

More to the point, even if Sanders’ record on Venezuela is a bit thin, we know he has praised other socialist nations including the USSR and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega. Granted that was in the 1980s but Sanders said last year he doesn’t regret his support for Ortega. So the idea that a) he never really was a socialist and b) even if he was he isn’t now doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. It seems far more likely Sanders is doing his best to moderate his position knowing it won’t sell very well beyond college students.

In a previous column, Krugman wrote dismissively that, even if Sanders were a socialist it would hardly matter:

What about the slippery slope from liberalism to totalitarianism? There’s absolutely no evidence that it exists. Medicare didn’t destroy freedom. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China didn’t evolve out of social democracies. Venezuela was a corrupt petrostate long before Hugo Chávez came along. If there’s a road to serfdom, I can’t think of any nation that took it.

Since we’re talking about Venezuela, let’s take a look at the article Krugman linked to prove his point that Venezuela didn’t take the road to serfdom:

Chavez also harnessed his popularity among the working class to expand the powers of the presidency and edged the country toward authoritarianism: he ended term limits, effectively took control of the Supreme Court, harassed the press and closed independent outlets, and nationalized hundreds of private businesses and foreign-owned assets, such as oil projects run by ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. The reforms paved the way for Maduro to establish a dictatorship years after Chavez’s death.

As I’ve noted before, in 2008 Chavez promised that Venezuela would not make the mistakes made in the Soviet Union. His would be a kinder, gentler 21st century socialism on behalf of the people. A few years later everyone, except Bernie Sanders, admits Maduro is a dictator with his own death squads.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Sanders’ top surrogate is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She also calls herself a Democratic Socialist and she has repeatedly suggested she is not a fan of capitalism. Is she just trying to shock the bourgeoisie too?

Update: James Freeman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes that back in 2003 Reuters reported Sanders and other Democrats had written a letter of support for Hugo Chavez:

Chavez on Sunday read out a Jan 9 letter of support sent by 19 U.S. Congress members recognizing him as the legitimately elected president of Venezuela.

“If Abraham Lincoln or George Washington were alive and here today, they would be on our side,” he said.

In their letter, the 19 members of the U.S. House of Representatives – 18 Democrats and one independent – told Chavez they strongly opposed attempts to remove him from office and condemned Bush administration officials who appeared to support the short-lived coup against him in April.

The authors of the letter included Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and independent Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Was Hugo Chavez not a real socialist either? We need a ruling from Krugman.