During a CNN debate in October 2015, Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders a particularly loaded question: “You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist candidate win a general election in the United States?”
“We’re gonna win because we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is,” Sanders replied before launching into his standard elevator pitch. He decried the concentration of wealth held by the “top one-tenth of 1 percent” and railed against capitalism’s systemic failure to deliver in other areas, such as health care and education.
Cooper’s question contained a lot of baked-in assumptions about the American voter. Why would Americans vote for a socialist? You could easily ask the opposite questions: Why the hell not?
If the S-word is truly an anathema, then one would expect Sanders to lose support by admitting on national TV that he’s an “avowed socialist,” but in the month after the debate, Sanders’ poll numbers surged 7.5 points. In that same period, his lead over Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head contest widened from roughly 4 to 6 points.
But how would voters react if Republican sleuths were to dig up some top-tier oppo showing the Vermont senator doing the kind of pinko stuff that would get someone hauled before HUAC in the bad old days?
Think of how damaging it would be if the public found out he went to a Sandinista rally or clips surfaced of a shirtless Sanders singing socialist anthems in the heart of the Evil Empire itself.
The latter scene of him partying with the Ruskies in the 80s leaked out shortly before he officially announced his candidacy in February. Again his poll numbers went up—even before he got his post-announcement bump. One poll released a month later showed him beating Trump by 9 points.
More recently, James O’Keefe, the rightwing “journalist” who took out ACORN and unleashed Laura Loomer on the world, released a “bombshell” video of a drunken low-level Sanders staffer joking about sending Nazis to gulags for reeducation.
Sanders became the frontrunner the following week.
Red-baiting, a staple of American politics, just doesn’t have the bite it once did. Communism used to be the great Other against which the American identity was defined. But we’re past a tipping point where those who came of age at the height of the Cold War are fast becoming outnumbered by ones who grew up after or were too young to remember it.
Once the “end of history” arrived, we found ourselves grinding through a dreary epilogue characterized by skyrocketing inequality and broken promises of prosperity. Suddenly, capitalist triumphalism wasn’t so triumphant.
The 2008 financial crisis looms larger in the mind of the American voter than the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter of communism haunts us less than that of crippling medical debt.
Disenchantment with our economic system continues to grow even as we approach the crest of the post-crisis recovery. Sanders has not only given voice to this sentiment but also articulated a solution, and there is unambiguous evidence that he is pushing the needle to the left.
Gallup has surveyed the relative attitudes of Americans toward capitalism and socialism over the past decade. While Republicans’ faith in capitalism remains relatively unshaken (solidly 70 percent), Democrats and Democrat-leaners have shifted toward socialism since the start of Sanders’ campaign.
There was ambivalence in this group for the first half of the decade, but when polled in 2016, slightly more reported a positive attitude toward socialism. Then, in 2018, the split became 57–47 in favor of socialism.
One might say that’s all well and good for the primaries, but surely Bernie calling himself a socialist will hurt him in the general, right? Not necessarily.
The electorate is polarized with huge chunks consistently voting for each party. Conventional wisdom holds that those in the middle are moderates situated roughly halfway between the two, therefore a candidate should hew toward the center for the general.
Well, as any scientist will tell you, common sense is often wrong.
That same Gallup poll showed that in 2018, 16 percent of Republicans or leaners had a positive view of socialism. In another year, the poll found that roughly one-in-four had a positive view of socialism. As unlikely as it sounds, being a socialist isn’t a dealbreaker for many people who tend to vote Republican.
Is it enough to win? Yes. According to one estimate, there were 10 million swing voters in the last election, accounting for only 7 percent of the electorate. Those votes are hardly beyond Sanders’ reach.
There’s a contradiction here. If any given person is asked whether they have a positive attitude toward socialism, they’re more likely to respond negatively, but the individual planks of Sanders’ platform poll well.
A narrow majority of voters support Medicare for All, the centerpiece of Sanders’ campaign. According to a study done in November by the Kaiser Family Foundations, 87 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents had a positive reaction to the term “Medicare-for-All.”
At the same time, the study shows widespread misunderstandings about Medicare-for-All. Nearly three-fourths wrongly believe they would still pay co-pays and deductibles. The program meets voters’ top five priorities: covers all Americans (89%), simplifies the system (79%), no monthly premiums (56%), no out-of-pocket costs (56%), and shifts what people pay for health care to taxes (45%).
This means Sanders has to sell himself and his health care plan at the same time. He’s doing that. At a Fox News Town Hall Sanders did something long considered political suicide: He told people he would raise their taxes. But he explained that on the balance most people would be paying less once you account for out-of-pocket costs. To the dismay of the Fox hosts, who thought it was a gotcha, the audience cheered.
Voters look favorably on other aspects of Sanders’ platform that have a distinctly socialist flavor, such as the $15/hr. minimum wage, which two-thirds of Americans now support. Sanders is also a vocal champion of labor amid a rising tide of workplace struggles and warming attitudes toward unions.
As the Gallup poll showed, the credibility of capitalism is slipping across the board, pointing to an opening for Sanders. A socialist is best equipped to harness that lingering anger toward Wall Street.
A member of the elite, Trump’s populism rings hollow, but the message “drain the swamp” resonates with voters.
There is a swamp. It’s the revolving door of bankers and hedge fund managers that each successive administration puts in charge of policing their own golf buddies: Hank Paulson, Timothy Geithner, Steve Mnuchin, etc.
A socialist would be more likely than anyone else to break this toxic cycle. A socialist isn’t going to put a former employee of Goldman Sachs in charge of regulating Goldman Sachs
Putting aside any distaste for the word “socialism” or its baggage, there’s the simple reason why voters will choose Sanders: They like him.
He’s one of the most popular politicians in America. Sanders currently leads the field in favorability, edging out Joe Biden. He’s also the most liked by independents, who now make up the largest group of voters.
Sanders is consistently rated highest on two out of the top three the characteristics people look for in a presidential candidate. He’s seen as the most honest and the one who cares the most about ordinary people. While Sanders trails Biden in terms of perceived leadership abilities, he is still beats Trump and Warren in this category by a wide margin.
The bottom line: If “socialism” were running in this election, it would probably lose, according to the polls. But voters aren’t picking an economic system—they’re picking a president and his policies. And, whatever he calls himself, Bernie sure looks like a winner.