(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/Wikimedia/Salon)

Bernie Sanders and the mainstreaming of socialism: "The romance of big capitalism is stripped down"

Scholar Todd Gitlin talks to Salon about millennial voters and the term that isn't a dealbreaker anymore

Scott Timberg
October 14, 2015 11:59PM (UTC)

One of the key concepts behind the 2016 presidential race has been the notion of socialism, but it’s only just now becoming explicit. Bernie Sanders has been calling himself a democratic socialist, and extolling Scandinavia’s safety net, for a long time. In last night's Democratic candidate debate, Anderson Cooper asked one of his first questions about Sanders’ political commitments, leading it off with “A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House… How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”

Online searches for the term “socialism,” as a result, spiked. “The Real Debate Last Night Was Between Democratic Socialism and Casino Capitalism,” Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation tweeted.


It makes you wonder how American attitudes toward the term have changed since the Red Scare. To what extent are millennials less frightened of the possibility of a socialist politician, even president, than previous generations?

We spoke to Todd Gitlin, a onetime campus radical and president of Students for a Democratic Society who is now a professor at Columbia University and author of “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.” The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

How does the idea of socialism seem to be playing out in the 2016 race in general?


It’s just started to rear its head. It’s one of those questions that so-called moderators pat themselves on the back because they sound tough — tough-minded.

There are a number of polls that broach this question… Here’s a [Gallup] poll from June. This one doesn’t break it down by age. Forty-seven percent of Americans would vote for a socialist if their party nominated one. While 50 percent say they wouldn’t. Which is fewer than said they would vote for an atheist, which is 58 percent.

In 2012, “more than half of Democrats and left-leaning Americans have a positive view of socialism” – 53 percent – this must be the one that got all the attention. This is also Gallup. “This is almost identical to the proportion of left-of-center individuals who respond favorably to capitalism.” That means no change from 2012.


This is a different poll – YouGov and Gallup, in May… “YouGov found that younger people have a more favorable view of socialism than older people” – surprise! – and that “younger people are approximately split in their support between socialism and capitalism.” And "36 percent of 18 to 29s had a very of somewhat favorable view of socialism, as opposed to 15 percent of individuals above 65."

How do you interpret all of this?


First of all, when Bernie Sanders tried to address the question, he didn’t say that he means [government] ownership of corporations. He didn’t say he means worker management of corporations. He said something about income. That was, in a way, shrewd.

Hillary [Clinton], by the way, said she was in favor of profit-sharing – which is, in its way, just as socialist.

I think most Americans have only the haziest idea of what socialism might be. There’s a penumbra, this sort of aura, around it. And it includes income equality, increased government regulation, and somewhere on the far horizon, reducing the power of shareholders in economic life.


It all raises the question – to what extent is Sanders a socialist?

What does he mean? He declined to state what he means.

The anecdotal evidence, and some polls, show young people less frightened by the idea of socialism. What does that come from?

I think they are the most anxious about economic prospects, both for them and their peers, number one. Number two, they have lived through the financial meltdown, and distrust at least large banks, probably distrust large energy companies, and are destabilized. Whatever they think capitalism is, the romance of big capitalism is stripped down to a remarkable degree.


Clearly the bloom is off the rose for at least half of young people. They want more equality, they want more job stability, they probably want more of a role for government regulation. It’s significant — it’s not all-encompassing, but it’s significant.

Does that make them socialists, or does it make them liberals?

My best guess is that they’re left-liberals. Liberalism in the United States is doubly understood as a view of government and the economy, and socially permissible practices and attitudes – whether about abortion or gay rights or limits of textbooks by religious forces.

So it means that roughly half of these young people are unimpressed with capitalism, shall we say, and insofar as they have some idea of what might improve matters, they identity improvement with something they’ve come to see as socialism.


Young people have come of age with the Occupy movement and talk of the one percent, as well. To what extent are those responsible for this softening of opposition to socialism?

Certainly the news of the one percent was spread by Occupy. The anger over the resolution – if it was a resolution – of the financial meltdown that primed people, especially younger people, to distrust corporations and in particular big banks… Occupy fanned those flames.

Even though Occupy was evanescent, its spirit, its general import is still alive out there.

How would this work out if we were talking to young people, liberal people, about socialism in the ‘80s or ‘90s?


I think it’s pretty obvious there would have been barely detectible enthusiasm for something called “socialism” in the ‘80s.

Is this because of Reagan? Because the Soviet Union scared mainstream America?

Those were two reasons, and except for significant brackets around the early '80s when unemployment boomed, the economy was far less scary looking than it is today.

So it’s not that socialism has had such great PR, it’s that a lot of people wonder if capitalism can keep going the way it has lately. A sense of unease with our system.



Let’s close with Sanders. He continues to identify with democratic socialism – is that a dealbreaker for American voters? Will he continue to be a significant candidate who shapes the terms of the race?

He’s not a likely nominee. He’s a powerful candidate – he’s obviously had a big impact on Hillary. His chances outside New Hampshire and Iowa, I think, are meager – and were before this. I don’t think the socialist label is an impediment. Among those who are enthused by him, it’s certainly not a dealbreaker. Among the larger group of Democrats, they were already ill-disposed toward him, or more positively disposed toward Hillary.

Have you been surprised that Republicans haven’t gone after Sanders for his socialism?

Oh, they’re too busy with their own varieties of lunacy and right-wing mania to be paying attention at this point. They’re saving their big guns for Hillary. They reasonably expect her to be the candidate.

Bernie Sanders Won the Internet During Last Night's Debate

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Aol_on Bernie Sanders Democratic Debate Democratic Socialism Hillary Clinton

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