I can remember the exact moment when it occurred to me that the Cold War was finally over. It was about three months ago, at an event for prospective university students and their parents; at the end, a smart, energetic college senior took questions from the audience. When asked to describe the political climate on campus, she said it was broad and inclusive, featuring conservatives, Trump supporters, liberals, progressives, and, as she put it, “democratic socialists like me.” She wasn’t trying to be provocative. No one in the audience batted an eye. She referred to socialism in a purely neutral, descriptive way, and everyone moved on. The lingering effects of Cold War ideology had finally faded away.
The Sanders campaign is about to end in defeat, and with his expected endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Bernie will finally fall in line with the Democratic Party establishment. But his surprisingly popular movement has achieved something remarkable – it marks the end, in a cultural sense, of the Cold War. Though that struggle between capitalism and communism formally ended 25 years ago, the effects of the conflict continued to warp our political culture long afterward, forestalling any meaningful discussion of democratic socialism. Long embraced in Europe, “socialism” in America was too often falsely equated with “communism,” which was inextricably tied to the gulag, Stalin’s show trials, and Soviet imperialism, among other outrages. The real end of the Cold War would mean an end to its distorting influence on our domestic political culture, and it finally came in 2016, precipitated by the unlikely combination of the financial crisis and Bernie Sanders. A self-identifying democratic socialist has won twenty-three major-party primaries or caucuses, an outcome unthinkable even a few years ago.
Before this presidential election cycle, conventional wisdom suggested that socialists in America tended to be cranks, out-of-touch college professors, or both, populating the margins of our political culture. But thirteen million people just voted for Sanders in the primaries, and he won states in New England, the midwest, the plains, and the Pacific northwest. Starting with little money, no name recognition, and few endorsements, he took Hillary Clinton, who had lots of all of those things, nearly to the wire.
Until now, self-identifying socialists went exactly nowhere in U.S. elections. In recent decades, Democrats with national aspirations even tried to avoid the “liberal” label; “socialist” was unimaginable. As early as 1906, the title of German sociologist Werner Sombart’s study of American exceptionalism famously asked “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” It’s a difficult question to answer, but it’s clear that more recently, since World War II, Cold War ideology and fairy tales of American rugged individualism combined to create a culture that lumped together repressive one-party dictatorships and national health insurance. Democratic socialism wasn’t discussed in any productive way, tainted as it was by its supposed connection to the evil communist enemy. That’s changing.
Why now? The simple passage of time is part of the story. There are currently millions of young voters, among whom Sanders was highly popular, who were born after the Cold War was over. To many of them, the face of socialism is a scruffy grandpa type with a Brooklyn accent and promises of debt-free education, not, say, a mustachioed mass murderer. And as someone who teaches college undergraduates, based on numerous conversations with students, I can confirm that Sanders’s socialism doesn’t bother them at all.
In addition to the distance provided by passing years, the sorry state of our capitalist system set the scene. Wall Street deregulation, nakedly corrupt campaign finance rules, and sharply rising inequality have taken their toll on our social fabric, and triggered a loss of faith in our institutions. And none of us should be surprised that in the wake of the entirely avoidable Great Recession, people are looking for alternatives; more promises of tax cuts aren’t so convincing anymore. A democratic socialist suddenly seems to make a lot of sense to a lot of people, and for good reason.
Throughout the primary, as those people began to support Sanders in significant numbers across the country, they tended to be caricatured in the media as naïve idealists. Clinton voters, on the other hand, were supposedly pragmatic and sensible, choosing to support an electable candidate with workable ideas. But this is wildly unfair.
Like every candidate, Sanders has his weaknesses on policy matters, and it’s fair enough to criticize his lack of specifics in some cases. But ideologically speaking, European-style democratic socialism offers more realistic solutions to many of our national problems than Clintonian neoliberalism. As Sanders was perfectly willing to point out in the campaign, the countries that embrace his kind of socialism tend to be the most prosperous, happiest, most equitable, safest, healthiest places on earth. The neoliberal, globalist vision embraced by many mainstream Democrats and Republicans, both Clintons included, is mostly fantasy. Sanders voters were ready to embrace democratic socialism not because they’re wild-eyed idealists, but because it works.
Of course, the United States, as we are constantly reminded, is not Denmark. And Bernie’s success does not mean that a wave of socialism is about to transform our political culture. After all, he lost. And the word socialist hasn’t completely been stripped of negative connotation for everyone. There are still people who aren’t sure what the word means, but like to throw it around as an insult. And confused Tea Partiers like to denounce President Obama as a socialist/communist/Nazi, among other nonsensical things. But in the past year or so, Democratic primary voters got a chance to seriously consider some ideas put forth by a democratic socialist, and liked them. This seems to indicate that we can at least have productive discussions that involve the word socialism from now on. Clinton’s conversion to the Sanders-like “new college compact” is an indication of the practical effect of the Sanders campaign, and a laudable one at that. In the bigger picture, it seems that Americans can now finally discuss and debate socialism and sometimes even cast a meaningful vote for a socialist in a major election. The Cold War is finally over. And it’s about time.