Democratic presidential candidate and self-described socialist Bernie Sanders had a good weekend.
A new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll revealed on Saturday that the Vermont senator is on the rise in Iowa.
With 30 percent of the vote, Sanders is just seven points behind Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton among Democrats in the country’s first caucus state.
His share of the vote has nearly doubled since the last poll in May, while Clinton has dropped below 50 percent for the first time.
In another era, such a strong showing by a socialist would be unheard of. It was newsworthy enough in 2006 when his election to the U.S. Senate was announced with headlines like this: “Vermont’s Bernie Sanders Becomes First Socialist Elected to U.S. Senate.”
Sanders is unafraid to use the word to describe his politics, which pundits have spent months trying to explain. Could it be, some wonder, that the days of “socialist” being a dirty word are gone?
“‘Socialist’ has never been a complimentary term in American political discourse, but it has reached a particularly high level of toxicity during the past six years of President Barack Obama’s administration,” Politico wrote in July.
“While the president and his defenders have spent a great deal of time parrying that attack, Bernie Sanders is using the socialist label to his advantage, packing venues around the country and establishing himself as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s leading challenger ...”
Millennials aren’t scared of the word
Socialism clearly is not a nasty word among younger voters – namely the millennials who have been showing up in droves to Sanders’ rallies.
A growing acceptance of the word among young Americans was revealed four years ago in a Pew Research Center survey. It found that 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had a positive reaction to the word ‘socialism,’ compared with 33 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, 23 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 14 percent of Americans 65 and older.
“The older you get, the more you hate socialism,” the survey concluded.
But do they know what socialism is?
Maybe younger Americans don’t mind that Sanders is a socialist because he supports free tuition at public universities.
Or maybe they don’t know what socialism is.
Informal polling by the Campus Reform college news site in August found that millennials can’t distinguish between socialists and Democrats.
The polling followed up an appearance by Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” where host Chris Matthews pressed her for to define the difference between socialists and Democrats.
Wasserman Schultz wouldn’t answer the question directly. “The relevant debate that we’ll be having over the course of this campaign is what’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican,” she said.
Campus Reform asked young adults the same question – “What do you think the difference is between a Democrat and a socialist?” – and they were equally confused/evasive.
Blank-stare answers ranged from “I don’t know” to “Um.”
“I don’t think there’s a big enough difference. That’s probably why it was hard (for Wasserman Schultz) to actually explain,” said one student.
So what kind of socialist is Sanders?
Political writers have spent untold words in recent months trying to define Sanders’ socialist leanings.
“Exactly what kind of socialist is Bernie Sanders?” (NPR)
“Q&A with Bernie Sanders: What he means by socialism” (USA Today)
“Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. But what does that term mean?” (Daily Kos)
The textbook definition of socialism refers to a society where the government, not individual people and companies, own and control the major industries – the antithesis of free market capitalism.
But Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” According to the website of Democratic Socialists of America, a group that supports Sanders’ campaign, “democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy.
“But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.
“Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.”
Democratic socialist “has nothing to do with authoritarian communism,” Sanders told The New Republic in April in an article titled “Stop Calling Bernie Sanders a Socialist.”
In a July interview with The Nation, he was asked about the evolution of the word and why he talks about socialism in “positive, detailed terms.”
“I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments,” Sanders said.
“One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding.”
Sanders has been trying to explain his brand of socialism for years.
“Well, I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest,” he told Democracy Now! in 2006 when he was elected to the Senate.
“I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.”
Jesse Jackson: Sanders is ‘mainstream’
To critics who have called Sanders’ run “fringe,” the senator’s longtime friend Jesse Jackson says think again.
In August the civil-rights leader advised the senator to define socialism “in a way that takes away the label they are trying to put on him,” Jackson told CNN.
Too many people, Jackson said, “dismiss his campaign as just an angry margin. The fact is ... this is mainstream.”
What Sanders’ supporters believe about socialism
Jason Wilson, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Social Research at Australia’s Swinburne University, attended a rally of about 500 Sanders supporters in Portland, Oregon, over the summer.
“When I showed up at the cavernous community center, there were over 500 people there – all drinking craft beer, talking politics and watching the live broadcast of the senator’s speech,” Wilson wrote in London’s The Guardian.
“Granted, crunchy Portland is deep in Sanders’ heartland. Nevertheless, it was notable that no one I talked to had the least misgivings about Sanders calling himself a socialist; almost all were happy to identify with the term. Few were doctrinaire, many differed in the details of what socialism actually means, but almost all were attracted to Sanders as someone whose policies might alleviate the everyday suffering of those not part of the country’s tiny wealthy elite.”
Said one supporter named Chris, who thinks the word “socialism” has been polluted by fear campaigns, had a message for his right-leaning fellow Americans: “Don’t make a good idea sound crazy just because your bad idea wants to marginalize so many people.”
“If he is a ‘socialist,’ who isn’t?”
In June, conservative columnist George Will accused Sanders of being a poser.
“Does any stricture of journalistic propriety or social etiquette require us to participate in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s charade?” wrote Will.
“Is it obligatory to take seriously his pose of being an “independent” and a “socialist”? It gives excitable Democratic activists a frisson of naughtiness to pretend that he is both. Actually, he is neither ...
“If he is a ‘socialist,’ who isn’t? In olden days, socialism meant something robust — government ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Then, voters and reality being resistant to such socialism, the idea was diluted to mean just government ownership of an economy’s ‘commanding heights,’ principally heavy industries, coal mines, railroads, etc.
“Today, ‘socialism,’ at least in Western Europe where the term is still part of the political lexicon, is the thin gruel of ‘social democracy.’ This means three things — heavy government regulation of commercial activities, government provision of a ‘social safety net’ and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and entitlement programs.
“For America’s Republicans, opposition to these three ubiquitous realities is avowed but not constraining. They neither plan nor pose a serious threat to any of the three, so they, too, can be called ‘socialists,’ which is a classification that no longer classifies.”
What would Jesus do?
Earlier this summer Sanders took his campaign to conservative, deep-red states in the South. Three volunteers on Facebook organized one event for him in Alabama.
They expected 30 to attend. They got more than 300.
“He’s got me excited in politics again,” said one supporter. “He’s not just in it for the money or his own career. To me, he’s what politicians should be.”
Added the supporter: “I think Jesus was a socialist.”
Will Americans put a socialist in the White House?
That’s still debatable.
In early June a Gallup Poll revealed that while 50 percent of Americans would not vote for a socialist, 47 percent said they would.
“Americans’ notions about whom they would give their support to are widening, but they are still less than fully supportive of candidates with certain characteristics,” the poll said.
“The news is likely worst for Sen. Bernie Sanders. At one point, Americans might have withheld their votes from him because of his Jewish faith — fewer than half said they would support a Jewish candidate in 1937 — but today his socialist ideology, given Americans’ views on voting for a socialist candidate, could hinder his candidacy more.”