Beware of right-wing scare tactics about Democratic socialism: Conservatives are using this boogeyman to manipulate their base

New right-wing poll signals Republican election strategy to dismiss the Democrats as un-American communists

By Sean Illing

Published February 23, 2016 5:23PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

A right-wing advocacy group called American Action Network has produced a poll purporting to show that a majority of Democrats self-identify as socialist. The group claims six-in-ten Democratic primary voters believe socialism has a “positive impact on society.” And if that isn't sufficiently scary, they also found that Democrats under the age of 45 prefer socialist ideology to capitalism “by a margin of 46 percent to 19 percent.”

Importantly, as Politico's Gabriel Debenedetti notes, the polling done by AAN “made a specific point not to mention Sanders or Democratic front-runner Hillary part of an effort to avoid findings that simply reflect that race.” Conservatives are looking for an effective – but false – talking point in the general election, which they can use no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

Democrats, therefore, can expect to hear more of this trope in 2016. Republicans will argue that Sanders's success demonstrates just how out of touch the Democratic Party is. “Now you finally have someone who's running for president – not just running, but doing very well, is very competitive, may very well be the nominee – who calls himself a socialist,” says Mike Shields, president of AAN and former Republican National Committee chief of staff. “So we thought it would be worth going past the leadership of the party to see what the primary electorate itself thinks.”

Polls like this are problematic because of the imprecise language and leading questions. They illuminate almost nothing, but they produce the intended result, which is why they're conducted in the first place. For example, the poll describes a “socialist” as one who believes “corporations have too much control and that the capitalism system is set up to favor the rich and powerful,” and that “the only way to police corporations and protect the citizens is for the government to take a larger role in managing the economy to make sure that every individual has equal access to basic necessities and public goods, even if that means that some people have to transfer their wealth to others.”

One can accept every word of that statement and still believe in a fundamentally capitalist system. The assumption buried in this poll – and in our broader conversation about capitalism and socialism – is that systems of government are discrete units. Regime types fall along a continuum; almost every major Democracy on the planet – including ours – is a hybrid regime, containing elements both of socialism and capitalism. Our choice isn't binary – socialism or capitalism? The reality is far more complicated than that.

One of the more admirable aspects of Sanders's approach is that he's trying to level with the American people. Rather than avoid the term “democratic socialism,” he's making the simple argument that America is already socialist in many respects. He's asking people to be adults, really. This opens him up to demagoguery from the Right, but he's hoping honesty and clear language will suffice.

In a critical speech late last year, Sanders tried to situate democratic socialim in the broader American tradition. He unpacked all the confusion around the term socialism, which means something different in the mouth of everyone who uses it. If Sanders is a socialist, so too was FDR. Indeed, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican president, supported far more radical tax policies than Sanders.

Here's Sanders account of his socialist ethos:

“Almost everything he [FDR] proposed was called 'socialist.' Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was 'socialist.' The concept of the 'minimum wage' was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as 'socialist.' Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, one way or another, as 'socialist.' Yet these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.”

If you polled Republican primary voters and asked them if they supported Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid, an overwhelming majority would say 'Yes.' And that would, strictly speaking, make them socialists. Both liberals and conservatives treasure fundamentally socialist programs, but propagandistic polls like this mislead respondents into thinking the choice between socialism and capitalism is a binary one.

We already have, as Sanders says, socialist safety nets for the very rich and the very poor, but pitiless free market capitalism for everyone else. He's merely proposing we extend those safety nets to the middle class. Republicans talk about democratic socialism as though it's interchangeable with communism. The later involves the government owning the means of production (which no one actually proposes); the former is a return to the midcentury norm, to the America of FDR and Eisenhower and Johnson.

Even if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, polls like this one will be mentioned constantly by conservative commentators who want to use “socialism” as a boogeyman to frighten their base, to dismiss the Democrats as un-American communists. But it's not true. And if Sanders's campaign accomplishes one thing, I hope it's to demonstrate how truly American democratic socialism really is.

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Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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