Two weeks ago Senator Claire McCaskill, a Hillary Clinton enemy-turned-supporter, told Morning Joe’s audience what they already knew, that Bernie Sanders is “frankly, a socialist.” Whereas Obama denied the socialist accusation, Sanders affirms it, and the “s” word has done little to stifle the senator’s popularity. A week after responding to McCaskill, Sanders held a 10,000-person rally in Wisconsin. The following day, his aides announced his campaign has raised $15 million, and the following weekend he dressed down to stroll through a wholesome Fourth of July parade in Iowa, where the latest polls show the Clinton-Sanders gap has been cut nearly in half.
Sanders’ jolt into the media limelight is hardly enough for Clinton to fret; her aides have reported $45 million raised for her campaign so far, and she still maintains a formidable lead in the polls,.But does Sanders’ surprising success as an unapologetic socialist mean that calling a politician the “s” word no longer stings?
Sanders ties his definition of “democratic socialism” to a Scandinavian welfare state model, not the classical definition of socialism as public ownership of the means of production. The word “socialism” itself can describe a thousand different things, from a gulag to grandpa’s public health insurance. Newt Gingrich and other leading Republicans made calling Obama a socialist a seven-year-running stump speech. Given Obama’s centrist preferences on corporate tax rate and trade, and that his signature Affordable Care Act guarantees lucrative markets for private companies in healthcare, the claim that Obama’s a closet Menshevik makes as little sense as saying Reagan was for smaller government.
Of course, Gingrich and others were riffing off a century-old, anti-reform hobgoblin. The anti-Red hysteria and oppression ignited after shipyard workers (many of whom were pro-Bolshevik) shut down Seattle during the General Strike in 1919, has mostly exhausted itself. Nowadays, the “s” word raises money at Republican fundraisers, but doesn’t seem to spook the rest of America, especially those born near or shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that 18-29 year-olds were more likely to prefer “socialism” to “capitalism.”
Like “socialism,” a poll means a thousand different things. This Pew poll may not reflect a support for socialism, so much as confusion about what it means. Only 19 percent of Americans under 29 years old could accurately define “socialism,” another recent poll found. Michael Kazin, a professor and historian, teaches a freshman course on socialism at Georgetown University. During the first class, Kazin shows his students the right-wing caricatures of Obama viewing the troops in Red Square or hugging Che Guevara, and asks them if Obama’s a socialist. He told me most of his students, predominantly liberal, say yes. They think socialism means you want the government to be stronger, Kazin said. “I show them the dictionary definition of socialism. and they say ‘oh yeah, I guess he’s not in favor of that.’”
Still, socialism doesn’t confuse everyone under 30. Bhaskar Sunkara, the twenty-six year-old founder and publisher of Jacobin, a glossy socialist magazine launched in 2010, plans to organize for the Sanders campaign starting this year. Even though many, if not most, of Sanders supporters don’t share Sunkara’s vision of worker control of production, he hopes to lead Sanders supporters into campaigning for socialist City Council members in New York City. “What chances do I have of building a big socialist current, or even a majority in the United States,” Sunkara told me in the Jacobin office in Brooklyn, “if I can’t win over the 5 percent of people who think of Scandinavia as a model?”
What chances, indeed. America is the uncontested global center of capital, more now than ever. Yes, socialist Kshama Sawant did win a city council seat in Seattle, and succeeded in helping pass the city’s $15 minimum wage for retail and food workers. But that’s a far cry from American socialism’s peak a hundred years ago, when by 1912 the socialists had elected 305 councilmen and aldermen, 56 mayors, and had run thirteen daily newspapers, eight of them foreign-language.
Not only was poverty far worse during the heyday of American socialism, Kazin said, but social forces were starkly different. Many Americans back then saw themselves as “workers” or “producers,” an instrumental identity that coalesced mass and diverse contingencies of support for the Socialist Party and populists before the Great War. But today, many Americans prefer to see themselves as consumers of wealth, as opposed to producers of wealth whose hands are upon the means to forge a better world. “There was a coherent vision of alternative society, and there’s not that now,” Kazin said.
Regardless of the seemingly insurmountable odds, Sunkara said at least the word “socialism” has less of a stigma than it once had. Jacobin has garnered more than 10,000 print subscribers and 600,000 website hits per month, and a small staff of twentysomethings like himself. But Sunkara said the success was probably not because of a renewed interest in socialism per se, but a broader energy on the liberal-left.
That energy can probably be attributed to most of the popularity of Sanders “democratic socialism,” or an America with tighter financial regulations, a higher minimum wage, free public universities, and universal health care—all of which is indistinguishable from a traditional liberal platform. If this is what passes as socialism in America today, than young people warming up to socialism is really just a re-heating of Great Society liberalism.
The reason Sanders didn’t flinch when Senator McCaskill called him a socialist is because there’s nothing about his platform that’s radical, at least in a historical context. In fact, the “s” word helps to differentiate his candidacy in an election of familiar names and faces. All Sanders can do in a race with Clinton, who is almost surely too well-funded, organized, and powerful a player to beat, is popularize the social-democratic liberalism that Clinton has spent her entire career trying to expunge from the Democratic Party, force her to adopt something like a $15 federal minimum wage, and go back to Vermont a successful failure—just like the Socialists of yesteryear, who never assumed much power but whose electoral platform of 1912 has mostly become law.
Justin Slaughter is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn.