Technically, the jury is still out on whether Bernie Sanders’s identification as a socialist will hurt the Vermont senator in the Democratic presidential primaries. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann says it was the best thing Sanders ever did, because it conveys the notion that he will implement “fundamental changes in politics” at a time where people desperately want them.
But the fact remains that socialism still has a negative connotation for the majority of U.S. citizens. A June Gallup poll reported that 9 in 10 Americans would vote for someone who is Catholic, Jewish, Hispanic, black, or female before they would vote for a socialist.
“The label of ‘socialist’ will doom [Sanders], and the reason is that it’s a toxic word in political discourse. That’s true historically,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director and lead researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. “[America] is the only major industrialized country that never had a serious socialist party. In the post-WW2 generation, the enemy was the USSR, so the conflation of the word socialism with the enemy was very strong in previous. generations.”
Because socialism is associated with communism, it leaves many Americans with the image of the proletariat huddled together in long lines, waiting for what little sustenance Big Brother will allow—hence the popular meme: “Socialism: Where You Wait on Breadlines; Capitalism: Where Breadlines Wait on You.” Americans tend to still be wary that a big, ominous hand will reach down to take what people have earned and hand it to someone else. A socialist government just doesn’t seem fair to ye older generations.
But here’s what’s interesting: Of that group in the Gallup poll who said they’d vote for a socialist, 69 percent were under the age of 30. A May YouGov poll indicates that 36 percent of people ages 18 to 39 view socialism favorably, compared to just 15 percent of those over 65. And in a survey by Pew Research Center, almost half of people ages 18 to 29 viewed socialism favorably.
In short, younger generations are more open to socialist candidates than older—and a country that has long favored capitalism may be experiencing a subtle shift in ideology.
So why do younger generations find socialism more appealing? Ironically, one reason may be the GOP’s penchant for branding President Obama a “socialist” when he is not—the president remains popular with Millennials, who may regard the name-calling less as a slur against Obama than a positive association with the “s” word.
Rigel Robinson, vice president of membership for Cal Berkeley Democrats and founder of UC Berkeley Students for Bernie, says younger generations were raised in a time when there is less bias toward socialist governments elsewhere, and more willingness to contemplate radical economic changes. “A lot of Millennials don’t have the same reaction to [socialist] words and branding that a lot of older people do,” Robinson said. “People who aren’t familiar with the history of socialism in other countries and haven’t been subjected to ad campaigns against it don’t have the same visceral reaction to the word.
“People are definitely excited at the idea for something vastly different happening and someone coming into office with a different paradigm,” Robinson continues. “A lot of people under 30 have grown up in a time of unprecedented increases in income inequality and they would like to see some of that change, because it’s clear that the way things are operating currently are not particularly promising as far as income inequality is concerned.”
The latest Ipsos poll supports Robinson’s theory, revealing that the most often cited political issues for Millennials are the economy (35 percent) and education (28 percent). Also, according to a USA Today/Rock the Vote Millennial Poll, not only do more Millennials identify as Democrats (41 percent) than Republicans (28 percent), but Sanders is the favorite candidate of Millennial Democrats (while Trump holds an edge among Millennial Republicans).
Conventional wisdom holds that young people, on average, embrace more liberal politics in their youth and then move to the right as they age and accumulate wealth they don’t want to see redistributed (hence the famous quote often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchilll: “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.”). Even so, when they were in their 20s, Baby Boomers and even Generation X believed more in the American dream because they had opportunity to achieve it—whereas Millennials are more likely to be saddled with student debt and be more pessimistic about their prospects. It’s not yet clear where the generation will land politically, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, in an interview with NPR.
“For example, young women who are in their late 20s and early 30s aren’t really turning more conservative than younger women,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, “whereas older millennial men are now a little bit more conservative than younger millennial men, showing that the men are in some ways following that trend—becoming a little bit more conservative, maybe more supportive of a Republican platform. Young women continue to hold pretty liberal views, and that doesn’t seem to be shifting.”
While older generations see capitalism as the way to fiscally thrive, younger people may think integrating socialism is a better, fairer bet—particularly since they identify socialist policies more with nurturing countries such as Sweden and Norway than with repressive ones such as the old USSR and nations of the former Eastern Bloc.
However, in a speech at the Kennedy School of Government, Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said he appreciated that Denmark’s government is recognized as a political ideal, but he wants to make it clear that people often are wrong about Denmark. “I know that some people in the U.S. associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” Rasmussen said. “Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
Tap into U.S. political discourse today, and it becomes clear that there is not a single definition of socialism. A Reason-Rupe report cited this paradox and suggested it might all be semantics: While Millennials said they preferred capitalism over socialism 52 to 42 percent, they said they preferred a free-market economy over a government-managed economy by a much wider margin of 64 to 32 percent. The Libertarian-oriented folks at Reason conclude Millennials are simply unable to define socialism: “Language about capitalism and socialism is vague, and using these terms assumes knowledge millennials may not have acquired.” Meanwhile writers at progressive outlets such as the Daily Kos suggest that Sanders is not actually a socialist but a social Democrat: “Sanders’s platform hardly looks like radical socialism,” observes Stephen Wolf. “Instead, it is what nearly every Democratic voter would support deep down and what most Americans realize is fair.”
Rosenthal points out that calling a country “socialist” now is an easy way to generalize places that have a generous welfare state.
“There’s always been a kind of enlightened liberalism in this country, which knew better, which knew what welfare states in Europe were like. Everybody in America knows that Canada has national health (care), and Britain has had national health since the late 40s,” Rosenthal said, ”There are a lot of people who have understood for a long time that ‘modern socialism,’ as it were, is really about what’s often called ‘the welfare state.’”
Nonetheless, he says, “the strength of the other point of view where socialism is a toxic word is vastly greater.”
The term and the ideology have had a fractious history in the United States. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs earned over a million votes in 1918. The Socialist Party of America grew along with similar groups elsewhere, such as the French Socialist Party and the British Labor Party. There were also many socialist U.S. mayors elected in the early 1900s, including Milwaukee’s Emil Seidel in 1910 and Berkeley’s Jackson Stitt Wilson, who served from 1911 to 1913. Once America entered World War I, the socialists who opposed the war were often arrested, their publications closed, their movement monitored. Throughout the past century, apprehension about a “Domino-theory” spread of communism, paranoia about leftist infiltration, and disillusionment with how Marxist theory played out in the countries that attempted, it led to a waning of socialist support throughout the United States. But it never completely faded, particularly around college towns: UC Berkeley alum and Democratic socialist Ron Dellums, for instance, was elected to 13 consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Berkeley-Oakland district before retiring from Congress in 1998.
Kerida Moates, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, says that younger generations’ desire to implement socialist policies comes from a good-natured place. Still, “I don’t think the vast majority of Americans want a socialist candidate. I think the support we’ve seen for socialist candidates such as Bernie Sanders are coming from the fringes,” Moates says. “I feel that young people who are voting for a socialist candidate feel like they’re taking the moral high ground. They want to give workers a $15 an hour minimum wage because they want to see them succeed.”
Sanders is indeed framing the national electoral battle in moral terms, arguing in Democratic debates: “It is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent own 90 percent—almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”
As of now, Sanders is polling higher than expected against Clinton in the earliest caucuses (Iowa) and leading by a wide margin in the first primary (New Hampshire). Neither state, however, is particularly adept at picking the ultimate winners, and national polls still show Clinton with the edge. Most political analysts attribute the “Sanders surge” that to the fact that although Clinton continues to be pummeled by GOP contenders, he has scarcely faced a sliver of negative scrutiny—except, of course, for the disparagement of his chances based on his violation of the socialism taboo.
“Someone who really is a true principled socialist would probably never get elected to the highest office of president here,” Robinson says. “But Bernie is bringing a lot of elements of that ideology to capitalism, and people tend to be pretty receptive to that. Especially young people who don’t necessarily have the same knee jerk reaction to the word and can contextualize things on a case by case basis with the issues.”