It was an unusual moment for a country where distrust of an ideology often associated with the Soviet Union runs deep. Yet Sanders was on comfortable terrain as he focused the conversation on the rallying cry that has become his calling card in the presidential race. Again and again, Sanders returned to his core message: In America the rich are too rich and opportunities for the middle class are few and far between. That a presidential contender would bring such a populist message to such an elite university might seem odd. But picking a place where young, engaged liberals were sure to show up certainly guaranteed applause.
There was no shortage of enthusiastic Sanders supporters at the event. Students started lining up for the speech just before 6 a.m. Anyone who arrived too late was forced to wait outside in the rain. Still, gray skies weren’t much of a deterrent. “I really, really wanted to come,” said Sonja Erchak, a 19-year-old Georgetown sophomore, while standing outside waiting for the speech to start. “I made sure I hadn’t skipped any of my classes the entire semester so if something like this happened I could go.”
Christian Mesa, an 18-year-old freshman, was so thrilled to find out Sanders would be making the speech that he staked out the venue the night before to make sure he knew exactly where to line up. (“I heard that people showed up at 3 a.m. to see Hillary [Clinton] last year,” he said in an apparent indicator of the seriousness of the situation.) Mesa arrived with his friends at around 5:45 a.m., landing the first place in line. That was the icing on top. “The key was to make it inside,” Mesa said. “It just so happened we happened to be the first people.”
While waiting for the speech to start, students wondered aloud why the senator settled on Georgetown to deliver what could be called a socialist manifesto. “We were just trying to figure out why he chose Georgetown when he could have gone down the street to [the University of] Maryland which is a public school, but I think it has a lot to do with the Jesuit identity of the school,” said 18-year-old Georgetown freshman Aaron Bennett.
The backdrop also gave Sanders an opportunity to deliver a moral call for Democratic socialism. Sanders has been quick to praise Pope Francis for offering up critiques of unrestrained capitalism, and made sure to mention the pontiff on Thursday. “We need to create a culture which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money,” he said. “We must not accept a nation in which billionaires compete as to the size of their super-yachts while children in America go hungry and veterans sleep out on the streets.”
When it came time to articulate his ideology once and for all, Sanders returned to Roosevelt. “Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” Sanders said. “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”