When Asked Whether He Was A Socialist in 1989, Carl Sagan Sounded a Lot Like Bernie Sanders in 2016

Carl Sagan is best known for bringing attention to the cosmos. But in this clip from CNN, he puts the spotlight on how the Unites States fails to take care of its own most vulnerable citizens.

Madeline Wensel

Carl Sagan: democratic socialist?

Bernie Sanders isn’t the only high-pro­file, out­spo­ken, Brook­lyn-born, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go grad­u­ate to be ques­tioned on cable news about whether he iden­ti­fies as a socialist.

In this 1989 clip from CNN, cel­e­brat­ed astro­physi­cist and Amer­i­can icon Carl Sagan was also asked, by Ted Turn­er, whether he was a social­ist. And his response is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to that giv­en today by Sanders. 

Sagan, who was polit­i­cal­ly active through­out the 1980s as an oppo­nent of the nuclear arms race and Ronald Regan’s Strate­gic Defense Ini­tia­tive, argues that the Unit­ed States is unique from oth­er wealthy coun­tries in its unwill­ing­ness to care for, and invest in, its own cit­i­zens. The Unit­ed States is per­fect­ly able to do that,” he says. It choos­es not to.”

It’s a point Bernie Sanders espous­es fre­quent­ly when mak­ing TV appear­ances, cit­ing Swe­den and Den­mark as exam­ples of coun­tries that suc­cess­ful­ly pri­or­i­tize issues like health care, paid fam­i­ly leave and pub­lic education.

Unlike Sanders, Sagan did not nec­es­sar­i­ly agree to be labeled a social­ist. He did, how­ev­er, point out star­tling real­i­ties, like the Unit­ed States’ rank­ing in infant-mor­tal­i­ty rate (19th in 1989), to reveal the unbal­anced pri­or­i­ties of a gov­ern­ment that was spend­ing vast amounts of mon­ey in a Cold War with the Sovi­et Union.

In Sagan’s own words:

Eigh­teen oth­er coun­tries save the lives of their babies bet­ter than we do. How come? They just spend more mon­ey on it. They care about their babies more than we care about ours. I think it’s a disgrace…This coun­try has great wealth…We are using mon­ey for the wrong stuff.”

Sanders echoes this sen­ti­ment when he argues for invest­ing in poli­cies like free tuition at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, uni­ver­sal health-care and decreas­ing the defense budget.

Back in 1989, Turn­er, who awk­ward­ly rubbed his hands togeth­er dur­ing Sagan’s response, didn’t skip a beat in rerout­ing the con­ver­sa­tion towards a top­ic the pub­lic was per­haps more com­fort­able hear­ing about from Sagan: time-travel.

At least today in 2016, Sanders is asked actu­al fol­low-up ques­tions by our talk-show hosts and polit­i­cal pun­dits — allow­ing for real debate and help­ing to give the term social­ism’ its fair due in the pub­lic arena.

Made­line Wensel is a Spring 2016 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh with a degree in Social Anthro­pol­o­gy and Development.
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