The rise of the "self-proclaimed socialist": Why reporters shouldn't be so surprised that Bernie Sanders' appeal is growing

Few Americans embrace socialism, but they don't have the same hostility to the idea either--especially the young

Published August 19, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
(AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

On Sunday, Ben Carson told "Fox News Sunday’s" Chris Wallace that socialism is gaining ground in America. He’s right – sort of.

Carson was explaining why his idea for a flat tax of 10 percent won’t fly with lots of Americans.

"You make $10 billion, you pay $1 billion. Now, I know a lot of people say that’s a problem because that guy’s still got $9 billion left, we need to take his money," said Carson. "But you see, Chris, that’s called socialism. And I recognize a lot of people here who believe in socialism. That number is increasing."  

Labeling someone a "socialist" has long been conservatives' convenient way of attacking anyone who espouses even liberal views. In Bernie Sanders' case, however, the label fits. He is a socialist. Actually, he calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

Since Sanders launched his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, almost every news article about him identifies him as a “self-proclaimed socialist” or “an avowed socialist.” Understandably, no news outlet has identified any of the other candidates as a “self-proclaimed capitalist,” because they assume that we take capitalism for granted. Apparently reporters are dumbfounded by the Sanders surge.  How could a socialist have such growing appeal?  

In fact, times have changed. Most Americans, even if they're not socialists themselves, don't have the same knee-jerk, vitriolic hostility to the idea that was widespread during the hysteria of the Cold War.

Few Americans consider themselves socialists, but the number who have only lukewarm feelings about capitalism has grown.  A Pew Research Center survey found that while only 31 percent of Americans had a positive reaction to the word "socialism," barely 50 percent of Americans had a positive view of capitalism, and 40 percent had a negative response. That's hardly a ringing endorsement.

The Pew poll found that young Americans are about equally divided in their attitudes toward socialism and capitalism. Among 18-to-29-year-olds, 49 percent had a positive view of socialism, while 47 percent had a positive view of capitalism. Similarly, only 43 percent had a negative view of socialism, compared with 47 percent who had a negative view of capitalism.

Not surprisingly, those who came of age in the Cold War era are less likely to consider voting for a socialist candidate. A recent Gallup poll found that 34 percent of those 65 and older, 37 percent of 50-64-year-olds, and 50 percent of 30-49-year-olds would vote for a socialist. In contrast, 69 percent of 18-29-year-olds indicated that they would vote for a socialist for the nation’s highest officeholder. Chalk that up to either youthful idealism or to a profound shift in the young generation’s political outlook that could have a lasting influence as they get older.  

After more than half a century of Cold War hysteria and post-Cold War propaganda against socialism from the business and education establishments, the mainstream media and both political parties, the fact that almost half of Americans are willing to vote for a socialist for president is quite remarkable.

Although few Americans embrace socialism, they are less likely to demonize socialism than they were 40 years ago, when the Cold War was still raging, or even 20 years ago, when the Cold War was still fresh in people’s minds. That’s why you see a greater willingness to consider “socialism” as something worth thinking about among younger Americans who weren’t as exposed to the Cold War.

Young Americans don’t equate socialism with Communist China or the former Soviet Union. Things have changed since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. If people now in their 20s and 30s have any image of socialism at all, it is probably northern Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. They know that these societies embrace universal health insurance, childcare, paid family leave and paid vacations, more equality for women, and more progressive taxes. These countries have less poverty, more equality and more social mobility. Even Donald Trump recently praised Scotland’s single-payer health system.

In fact, Sanders has often said that he favors the kinds of policies favored by the Scandinavian social democracies.

Asked about this recently by George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC News’ "This Week," Sanders said:

“In countries in Scandinavia like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries. Voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. In those countries, healthcare is the right of all people; college education and graduate school is free; retirement benefits, childcare are stronger than the United States of America. In those countries by and large government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”

So don't expect Sanders to call for government ownership of banks and drug companies. His views fall squarely within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, only slightly to the left of  his Senate colleagues Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sherrod Brown of Ohio,  Barbara Boxer of California and the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Despite this, the right-wing echo chamber has been attacking Sanders for espousing an ideology they describe as foreign, European and un-American. The 17 Republican candidates for president have been too busy trying to differentiate themselves from each other to pay much attention to Sanders.  But if he wins the Democratic nomination, the Republicans will go ballistic over Sanders’ socialism. They’ll try to portray him as an American version of Joseph Stalin or Fidel Castro.    

So far, Sanders’ Democratic opponents haven’t overtly denounced Sanders’ socialism. But don’t be surprised if Hillary Clinton’s surrogates start to red-bait Sanders if they think that he is a real threat to her gaining the nomination. In 2008, this is the role that Sidney Blumenthal played in Clinton’s presidential campaign. Back then, I exposed Blumenthal’s shenanigans, which included sending regular hit pieces (to his network of influential journalists and pundits) from virulent and extreme right-wing websites, bloggers and publications attacking Obama for his alleged left-wing associations. Last month Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who has endorsed Clinton, called Sanders an extremist during an interview on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," but stopped short of mentioning the S-word.

Once Obama was elected, America's right-wingers didn't wait to start red-baiting him. For over six year, his opponents -- the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the right-wing blogosphere and conservative media gurus like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh – have labeled anything Obama proposed, including his modest healthcare reforms and his efforts to restore regulations on Wall Street, as "socialism."

In March 2009, two months after Obama took office, the ultra-conservative National Review put a picture of the new president on its cover over the headline, "Our Socialist Future." In 2010, Stanley Kurtz, a regular contributor to conservative publications and frequent guest on Fox News, published "Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism."  The same year, Newt Gingrich authored "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine" and Aaron Klein hit the bookstores with "The Manchurian President: Barack Obama's Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists." On July 7, during a segment on “Sanders’ Socialist Agenda” on the Fox News show "The Five," co-host Eric Bolling said, “You want a socialist? You want a leftist? You’ve got one in office right now,” referring to the president. These are only a few of the many right-wingers fulminating against Obama's alleged socialist views.

Obama joked about this in his speech at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in April. "I like Bernie. Bernie's an interesting guy," said Obama, referring to Sanders. "Apparently, some folks want to see a pot-smoking socialist in the White House. We could get a third Obama term after all."

President Franklin Roosevelt faced similar accusations. His conservative enemies, including some members of Congress, consistently called him a socialist. In a speech defending his New Deal goals, FDR said: "A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it 'Fascism', sometimes 'Communism', sometimes 'Regimentation', sometimes 'Socialism'. But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical."

When big business leaders and conservatives attacked him as a radical, FDR boasted: "They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred."

FDR’s New Deal was strongly embraced within the Brooklyn neighborhood where Sanders grew up. Born in 1941 to immigrant parents, Sanders was a high school track star and a good student whose political views were shaped by his working-class roots.

"Ever since I was a kid I never liked to see people without money or connections get put down or pushed around," Sanders explained when he announced his candidacy for president.

Sanders attended the University of Chicago, where he was active in the civil-rights movement. After a short stint living on an Israeli kibbutz, in 1964 he moved to Vermont, where he worked as a carpenter, filmmaker, writer and researcher, and got involved in radical politics. In the 1970s, after joining the antiwar Liberty Union Party, Sanders ran for several statewide offices, including governor, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House (Vermont has only one seat). He never garnered more than 4 percent of the vote, but he did better in Burlington than in Vermont’s rural areas, which gave him hope that he had a shot at winning office in the local government.

In 1981, Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington and defeated six-term incumbent Gordon Paquette by 10 votes in a four-way contest. Voters reelected Sanders three times by increasingly wider margins: 52 percent in 1983, 55 percent in 1985, and 56 percent in 1987. During his eight years as mayor, Sanders proved to be an effective, pragmatic leader of Vermont’s largest city. In 1990 Vermont voters elected Sanders to the U.S. House of Representatives and in 2006 to the U.S. Senate.

"When I came to Congress I tried to be a voice for people who did not have a voice--the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor,” Sanders reminded folks in his announcement. “And that is what I will be doing as a candidate for president."

Sanders is resonating with a growing number of Americans – including liberals and moderates -- because of his straight-talking style. They appear willing to look past the labels and listen to what Sanders is actually saying about the issues and the role of government in society.

Polls show that Americans are upset with widening inequality, excessive CEO compensation, the political influence of big business, and the middle class’s declining living standards. Public opinion is generally favorable toward greater government activism to address poverty, inequality, opportunity and climate change. Most Americans worry that government has been captured by the powerful and wealthy. They want a government that serves the common good. They also want to reform government to make it more responsive and accountable.

On those matters—both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions—Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans.

Big Business

  • About three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans—including 84 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans—believe that corporations have too much influence on American life and politics today, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. In contrast, only 37 percent think that labor unions exercise too much influence.  
  • The Pew Research Center discovered that 60 percent of Americans—including 75 percent of Democrats—believed that "the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy."
  • Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they would support breaking up “big banks like Citigroup,” a key plank of Sanders’ platform and the goal of a bill that Sanders sponsored in the Senate.
  • Seventy-three percent of Americans favor tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies, versus 17 percent who oppose stronger regulation.
  • Sixty-four percent of Americans strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars and requiring utilities to generate more power from “clean” low-carbon sources.

Progressive Taxation

Inequality and Poverty

  • A strong majority (66 percent) say that wealth should be more evenly divided and that it is a problem that should be urgently addressed.
  • Ninety-two percent of Americans want a society with far less income disparity than currently exists in the United States. Americans prefer some inequality to perfect equality, according to the professors at the Harvard Business School and Duke University who conducted the survey. But when asked to pick an ideal level of income disparity, Americans prefer the more egalitarian level similar to the one in Sweden (although without identifying the country by name) to that in the U.S. What’s more, the rich and the poor, and Democrats and Republicans, are almost equally likely to choose the Swedish model. For example, 93.5 percent of Democrats and 90.2 percent of Republicans preferred the level of income distribution that exists in Sweden.
  • Sixty-nine percent of Americans—including 90 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Republicans—believe that the government should help reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. Eighty-two percent of Americans—including 94 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents, and 64 percent of Republicans—think the government should help reduce poverty.        

Money in Politics

  • Eighty-four percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in politics. Slightly more Americans (85 percent) want an overhaul of our campaign finance system
  • Seventy-eight percent of Americans think that campaign spending by outside groups not affiliated with candidates should be limited by law.
  • A majority of Americans (54 percent) believe that money given to political candidates is not a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In other words, they disagree with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Minimum Wage and Workers' Rights

  • A recent poll by Hart Research Associates found that 75 percent of Americans (including 53 percent of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. Sixty-three percent of Americans support an even greater increase in the minimum wage to $15 by 2020.
  • Eighty percent of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members. Even more (85 percent) favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to employees who are ill.
  • A significant majority of Americans support the right of workers to unionize, despite several decades of corporate-sponsored anti-union propaganda. Eighty-two percent believe that factory and manufacturing workers should have the right to unionize. A vast majority support the right to unionize for transportation workers (74 percent), police and firefighters (72 percent), public school teachers (71 percent), workers in supermarkets and retail sales (68 percent), and fast food workers (62 percent).

Healthcare and Social Security

  • More than 50 percent of Americans (including one-quarter of Republicans and nearly 80 percent of Democrats) say they support a single-payer "Medicare for All" approach to health insurance, something Sanders has long advocated. Only 36 percent oppose the idea, while 12 percent are neutral.
  • Seventy-one percent of Americans support a public option, which would give individuals the choice of buying healthcare through Medicare or private insurers. This was part of Obama’s original healthcare plan but the insurance industry lobby killed it, thanks to every Senate Republican and a handful of Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.
  • The Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans want to lift the income cap to require higher-income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all of their wages. Most people still don’t realize that workers who earn more than $118,500 a year don’t pay Social Security taxes on their full income. Simply removing that tax loophole for high earners would close the lion’s share of Social Security’s modest long-term funding gap. Legislation introduced by Sanders would apply the same payroll tax already paid by more than nine out of 10 Americans to those with incomes over $250,000 a year. If upper-income earners paid into Social Security at the same rate as the rest of us, we could expand benefits for the majority of Americans. A recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that only the top 1.5 percent (1 in 67) and 0.7 percent (1 in 140) of Americans would be affected if the Social Security tax were applied to earnings over $250,000 and $400,000, respectively.

Higher Education

  • More than three-quarters (79 percent) of Americans think that education beyond high school is not affordable for everyone in the U.S. who needs it. Seventy-seven percent believe that higher education institutions should reduce tuition and fees, while 59 percent and 55 percent, respectively, agree that state governments and the federal government should provide more assistance. The average tuition bill for students at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades. More than one-third (35 percent) of 2000-2014 college graduates report graduating with more than $25,000 in undergraduate student loan debt, in inflation-adjusted dollars. The recently graduated college class of 2015 has an average debt burden of $35,051 per student, the highest ever. Sanders introduced legislation to make four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free, paid for through a tax on Wall Street transactions.

Same-Sex Marriage

Many of these views were once considered “radical,” but now they have become common sense.  That has been the major role of the left in American politics – moving ideas from the margins to the mainstream. Since the early 1900s, few American socialists have been elected to office, but their ideas -- and the movements they've helped organize--have been influential nevertheless.

When the Socialist Party was formed in 1901, many Americans were outraged by the widening gap between rich and poor, and the behavior of corporate "robber barons" who exploited workers, gouged consumers, and corrupted politics with their money. Workers were organizing unions. Farmers joined forces in the Populist movement to leash the power of banks, railroads and utility companies. Progressive reformers fought for child labor laws, against slum housing and in favor of women's suffrage.

Socialists played influential roles in all these Progressive Era movements and gained many new converts. Among them were labor leader Eugene V. Debs, philosopher and educator John Dewey, Francis Bellamy (the Protestant minister from Boston who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892), settlement house founder and peace activist Jane Addams, novelist Jack London, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, poet Katherine Lee Bates (who penned "America the Beautiful"), journalist Walter Lippmann, public health pioneer Alice Hamilton, working women's rights activist Florence Kelley, crusading attorney Clarence Darrow, feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), and "Big Bill" Haywood (leader of the miners' union). Helen Keller (1880-1968) is best known for overcoming her blindness, but she was also a lifelong radical. She connected the mistreatment of the blind to the oppression of workers, women and other groups, leading her to embrace socialism, feminism and pacifism.

Other prominent socialists included muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens (who exposed municipal corruption in his articles in McClure's magazine, collected in "The Shame of the Cities"), writer Upton Sinclair (whose 1906 novel "The Jungle," about the harsh conditions among Chicago's meatpacking workers, led to the enactment of the first consumer protection law, the Meat Inspection Act), and Lewis Hine, whose photographs exposed the brutal conditions faced by child laborers to an outraged public. Two socialist newspapers--the Appeal to Reason (based in Kansas) and the Jewish Daily Forward (based in New York)--each reached at least a quarter of a million readers around the country. New York, Milwaukee, Chicago and other cities had their own weekly socialist papers.

In 1912, Debs, the Socialists' presidential candidate, won more than 900,000 votes, 6 percent of the total. He would have garnered more, but two other candidates--Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Progressive Party candidate (and former president) Theodore Roosevelt--stole some of the Socialists' thunder, diverting the votes of workers, women and consumers with promises of such progressive reforms as women's suffrage, child labor laws, and workers' right to organize unions.

That year, Milwaukee voters elected Socialist Victor Berger to Congress; two years later, he was joined by another Socialist, Meyer London of New York. Berger sponsored bills providing the abolition of child labor, self-government for the District of Columbia, a system of public works for relief of the unemployed, and federal ownership of the railroads, the withdrawal of federal troops from the Mexican border, and women's suffrage. Berger also sponsored the first bill to create "old age pensions." To promote the Socialists' campaign for direct election of U.S. senators (who were then chosen by state legislators), Berger called for the abolition of the upper chamber, which he and others labeled the "millionaires' club."

At the Socialist Party’s high point in 1912, about 1,200 party members held public office in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in cities such as Milwaukee; Buffalo, New York; Minneapolis, Reading, Pennsylvania; and Schenectady, New York. In office, they pushed for public ownership of utilities and transportation facilities; the expansion of parks, libraries, playgrounds and other services; a living wage for workers, and a friendlier attitude toward unions, especially in time of strikes.

For many years, Milwaukee was the strongest Socialist city in the country. Grateful for these programs, Milwaukee voters kept Socialists in office. They elected Daniel Hoan as mayor from 1916 to 1940. During that period, Milwaukee was so frequently cited for its clean, efficient management practices that they boastfully called themselves "sewer socialists." Milwaukee voters elected another Socialist, Frank Zeidler, as their mayor in 1948, and, remarkably, he remained in office for 12 years at the height of the Cold War.

In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Norman Thomas, a Protestant minister, ran for president on a Socialist Party platform that called for old-age pensions, public works projects, a more progressive income tax, unemployment insurance, relief for farmers, subsidized housing for working families, a shorter work week, and the nationalization of banks and basic industries. Thomas figured that in such desperate times, his message would appeal to voters. But many voters who may have agreed with Thomas' views did not want to "waste" their vote on a Socialist who had no chance to win and who might even take enough votes away from the Democratic candidate, FDR, to keep Republican Herbert Hoover in office. Thomas had little regard for Roosevelt, whom he considered a wealthy dilettante and a lackluster governor of New York. He believed FDR's 1932 platform offered few specifics except vague promises of a "New Deal."

Thomas did not expect to win, but he was disappointed that while FDR garnered 22.8 million votes (57 percent), he had to settle for 884,781 (2 percent). When friends expressed delight that FDR was carrying out some of the Socialist platform, Thomas responded that it was being carried out "on a stretcher." He viewed the New Deal as patching, rather than fixing, a broken system.

Following the success of his popular muckraking book, "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair moved to California and ran on the Socialist Party ticket for the U.S. House (1920), the U.S. Senate (1922), and for governor (1926 and 1930), winning few votes. In 1934, Sinclair figured he might have more influence running for office as a Democrat. He wrote a 64-page pamphlet outlining his economic plan-- "I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty" -- and entered the California Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Much to Sinclair's surprise, his pamphlet became a bestseller across California. His campaign turned into a popular grass-roots movement. Thousands of people volunteered for his campaign, organizing End Poverty in California (EPIC) clubs across the state. The campaign's weekly newspaper, the EPIC News, reached a circulation of nearly 1 million by primary day in August 1934. The campaign allowed Sinclair to present his socialist ideas as commonsense solutions to California's harsh economic conditions.

Sinclair shocked California's political establishment (and himself) by winning the Democratic primary. Fearing a Sinclair victory, California's powerful business groups joined forces and mobilized an expensive and effective dirty-tricks campaign against him. On Election Day, Sinclair got 37 percent of the vote--twice the total for any Democrat in the state's history. Sinclair's ideas pushed the New Deal to the left. After the Democrats won a landslide midterm election in Congress that year, FDR launched the so-called Second New Deal, including Social Security, major public works programs, and the National Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the right to unionize.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, American socialism fell on hard times. Few Americans distinguished between the European social welfare systems and the communism of the Soviet Union or China. Across the nation, universities, labor unions, public schools, movie studios, and other major institutions purged themselves of their left-wingers.

But some socialists kept alive their radical critique of American militarism, big business, and racial injustice. In a 1961 article for Mademoiselle magazine titled "Who Are the Student Boat-Rockers?" Tom Hayden, a leader of the burgeoning student New Left, listed the three people over 30 whom young radicals most admired. All were socialists -- Norman Thomas (the principled antiwar radical and labor ally who headed the Socialist Party), C. Wright Mills (the maverick Columbia University sociologist whose many books, including "The Power Elite" and "The Causes of World War Three," exposed America's power structure and warned about the dangers of the Cold War arms race), and Michael Harrington (whose book "The Other America" inspired President Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson to wage a war on poverty).

As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Southern racists and right-wing groups like the John Birch Society insisted that the movement was led by Communists, in whose ranks they included Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On that count, they were wrong; King was no Communist. But he was a socialist. Growing up in a solidly middle-class family in Atlanta, King saw the widespread human suffering caused by the Depression, particularly in the black community. In 1950, while in graduate school, he wrote an essay describing the "anti-capitalistic feelings" he experienced as a result of seeing unemployed people standing in bread lines. In 1964, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, King observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian "democratic socialism." He began talking openly about the need to confront "class issues," which he described as "the gulf between the haves and the have-nots."

"There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism," King told his staff in 1966.

Since then, only a handful of elected officials and prominent public figures have identified themselves as socialists, including feminist Gloria Steinem, theologian Cornel West, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, labor leaders Dolores Huerta and Eliseo Medina, former congressman Ron Dellums, playwright Tony Kushner, and recently elected Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant. As an organized political force, America's socialist movement is tiny. Democratic Socialists of America, the nation's largest socialist organization, has only 6,500 dues-paying members. But socialist ideas continue to influence public opinion.

A few years ago, when a small group of New York radicals took over Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread to cities and small towns around the country, Frank Luntz, an influential GOP pollster, spoke at a Republican Governors Association meeting. He warned: "I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death. They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism."

Luntz offered tips for fighting back and framing the issues that the Occupiers have raised. For example, he urged Republican politicians to avoid using the word "capitalism."

"I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market,'" Luntz said. "The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of Wall Street, we've got a problem."

On that point, at least, Bernie Sanders and Frank Luntz agree.

By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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