It was inevitable that the question would come up. Last week’s 2016 Democratic primary debate was Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ big debut on the national stage as a presidential candidate, and with all those eyes on him for the first time, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about his political self-identification. “You call yourself a democratic socialist,” Cooper said. “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
It’s a fair question, given that no self-identified socialist has ever won a general election. That’s not to say there haven’t been some noteworthy socialist campaigns — Eugene Debs ran for president several times and managed to pull in 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912, roughly one quarter of the support incumbent president William Howard Taft received on his way to defeat. There was a strong socialist political tradition in the United States before several decades of Cold Warring and Red Scare hysteria pushed the socialists way out of the political mainstream and turned the word “socialist” into little more than a talk-radio epithet.
Anyway, Bernie explained that his plan was to teach the country what democratic socialism means. He defined it as an ideology that combats the immorality of growing wealth concentration at the top and provides basic services — healthcare, paid parental leave — to all citizens. He cited, as he often does, the examples of Scandinavian countries, saying we can “learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” When asked if he considered himself a capitalist, Sanders dodged, saying instead that he doesn’t subscribe to “casino capitalism” that perpetuates the “greed and recklessness” that “wrecked this economy.”
That’s when Hillary Clinton pounced and cast the role of the Democratic president as someone who champions small businesses and the middle class while “rein[ing] in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok.” That put Sanders in the position of having to clarify that of course he supports small and medium-sized businesses. “I think everybody is in agreement that we are a great entrepreneurial nation,” he said.
So now the “socialist” question is out there people are trying to figure out whether someone who freely uses the term to describe themselves stands any chance of winning over the American electorate. More moderate Democrats and Clinton supporters are, as you would imagine, circumspect about his chances. Sen. Claire McCaskill went on the radio last week and praised Sanders for “doing my party and our country a great service, by making the dialogue about things that really matter to a whole lot of Democrats and Americans.” But, she added, “I just don’t think somebody who calls himself a socialist is ultimately electable in this country — and I say that coming from a state where I’m confident Bernie would struggle because of how he identifies himself.” (This was a much more polite treatment of Sanders’ socialism than McCaskill has offered in the past.)
Republicans, of course, are trying to make Sanders’ political identification as radioactive as they possibly can. Rand Paul told a South Carolina radio host that he was “scared” of Sanders’ socialism because of the horrific genocides perpetrated by communist states in the 20th century:
PAUL: I don’t want America to succumb to the notion that there’s anything good about socialism. I think it’s not an accident of history that most of the times when socialism has been tried that attendant with that has been mass genocide of people or any of those who object to it. Stalin killed tens of millions of people. Mao killed tens of millions of people. Pol Pot killed tens of millions of people. When you have a command economy, when everything is dictated from one authority, that’s socialism, but it doesn’t come easily to those who resist it.
That’s an absurd thing to say, given that Sanders does not support a “command economy” of the Soviet type. Really, Sanders’ socialism isn’t all that socialist — he supports a single-payer healthcare system (of the type that exist in the communist hellholes of Canada and Great Britain), but he’s not pushing for the end of private industry or a government takeover of the economy. He pushes the same themes that most Democratic candidates embrace: reducing income inequality, curbing Wall Street influence, reversing climate change, and bolstering the middle class. “In much of the world — in particular in a number of Western and northern European countries — Sanders would be regarded as a moderate,” the Washington Post noted last week.
That being said, the “socialist” question does present a political problem for Sanders. He’s working against 100 years of American political culture that has portrayed “socialism” as either alien or hostile to our values. To his credit, Sanders doesn’t run from his ideological label. Nor does he make it his primary selling point in the way Republican candidates advertise their conservatism. Instead, he sells people on his policies and his commitment to affecting change on behalf of the working class. The strategy has worked tremendously well in Vermont, where Sanders enjoys cross-party appeal. “Sanders has made himself known in a state small enough — physically and in terms of population — for someone, particularly a tireless someone, to insinuate himself into neighborly dialogues and build a following that skirts ideological pigeonholes,” the New York Times noted in a 2007 profile. The problem lies in his ability to adapt that strategy to a national election.
The enthusiasm Sanders has already built around his insurgent candidacy shows that he’s not as outside the political mainstream as his critics allege, but by his own reckoning, Sanders’ path to success as a self-identified socialist is still a difficult one. He has to alter existing public misperceptions about democratic socialism, teach voters what “democratic socialism” really means, and then convince them to elect the first socialist president in American history. And he has to do this while his political opponents are leveraging existing stereotypes about socialism to cast him as unelectable or dangerous. That’s a lot to accomplish with one presidential campaign.