Long deployed by the right as an epithet, this form of left-wing populism is as American as apple pie.
Now that Bernie Sanders has entered the contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Americans are going to hear a lot about socialism, because the 73-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont describes himself as a “democratic socialist.”
“Ever since I was a kid I never liked to see people without money or connections get put down or pushed around,” Sanders explained in making his announcement. “When I came to Congress I tried to be a voice for people who did not have a voice—the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor. And that is what I will be doing as a candidate for president.”
We can expect the right-wing echo chamber—including Fox News hosts, Tea Party politicians, and Rush Limbaugh—to attack Sanders for espousing an ideology that they’ll likely describe as foreign, European, and un-American.
But Sanders’s views are in sync with a longstanding American socialist tradition. Throughout our history, some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, and Gloria Steinem, embraced socialism.
Of course, America’s right-wingers say there’s already a socialist in the White House !
Of course, America’s right-wingers say there’s already a socialist in the White House. For the past seven years, Barack Obama’s opponents—the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the right-wing blogosphere, and conservative media gurus like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh—labeled anything Obama proposed, including his modest health-care reforms and his efforts to restore regulations on Wall Street, as “socialism.”
In March 2009, two months after Obama took office, the ultra-conservative National Review put a picture of the new president on its cover over the headline, “Our Socialist Future.” In 2010, Newt Gingrich authored To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine. Stanley Kurtz, a regular contributor to conservative publications and frequent guest on Fox News, published Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism. These are only a few of the many right-wingers fulminating against Obama’s alleged socialist views.
Obama joked about this in his recent speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “I like Bernie. Bernie’s an interesting guy,” said Obama, referring to Sanders. “Apparently, some folks want to see a pot-smoking socialist in the White House. We could get a third Obama term after all.”
President Franklin Roosevelt faced similar allegations. His conservative enemies, including some members of Congress, consistently called him a socialist. In a speech defending his New Deal goals, FDR said: “A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘Fascism,’ sometimes ‘Communism,’ sometimes ‘Regimentation,’ sometimes ‘Socialism’. But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.”
When big business and conservatives attacked FDR as a radical, FDR boasted: “They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred.”
Labeling someone a “socialist” has long been conservatives’ convenient way of attacking anyone who espouses even liberal views. In Sanders’s case, however, the label fits. He is a socialist. But don’t expect him to call for government ownership of banks and drug companies. His views fall squarely within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, similar to those of his Senate colleagues Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Barbara Boxer of California and the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.
In fact, times have changed. Most Americans, even if they’re not socialists themselves, don’t have the same knee-jerk, vitriolic hostility to the idea that was widespread during the hysteria of the Cold War.
A Pew Research Center survey recently found that while only 31 percent of Americans had a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” barely 50 percent of Americans had a positive view of capitalism, and 40 percent had a negative response. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.
The Pew poll found that young Americans are about equally divided in their attitudes toward socialism and capitalism. Among 18-to-29 year olds, 49 percent had a positive view of socialism, while 47 percent had a positive view of capitalism. Similarly, only 43 percent had a negative view of socialism, compared with 47 percent who had a negative view of capitalism.
“Many young people associate capitalism with inequality, big corporations, and poverty,” Joseph Schwartz, a Temple University political scientist, told me in an interview.
“During the Cold War, socialism was identified with Communism, which meant totalitarianism and dictatorship. It wasn’t a very positive image,” said Schwartz. “But things have changed since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. If people now in their 20s and 30s have any image of socialism at all, it is probably northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia. They know that northern Europe has less poverty, more equality, and more social mobility. And they know that Canada, which has a strong socialist party [called the New Democratic Party], is a more equal and humane society than the United States.”
Dick Flacks, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, thinks that right-wing attacks on Obama may have backfired, especially among the Millennial generation, which gave Obama 66 percent of its vote in 2008, and 60 percent four years later.
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