Can Bernie Sanders Save Socialism?

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Why you should care

Because not all old, crotchety men are alike.

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The optics are usually bad: a rumpled suit, an untamable white mane, a thick Brooklyn accent and a campaign that lacks the sheen of the backing of billionaires.

Which is, of course, the point. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator for Vermont and self-described socialist, is running an outsider’s campaign within the Democratic Party, intended to shake up a system he says is stacked against most Americans. Pundits have compared him to another older, crotchety, white candidate — Ron Paul, the libertarian who ran for the White House as a Republican in 2008 and 2012. They’re on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, and few expect him to take the Democratic Party’s nomination (never mind the White House), but some speculate Sanders is driving the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, to the left. Or that he might weaken her, just like Paul did to “more serious” Republican contenders.

But the better question might be this: Can Bernie Sanders do for socialism what Ron Paul did for libertarianism — which is to say, take it from the fringes and turn it into a politically viable stance? After all, Paul’s years on the national stage coincided with a sharp rise in the number of Americans identifying as libertarian or with libertarian values, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Paul himself garnered 1.2 million votes in the 2008 Republican Party presidential primaries, and nearly double that in 2012 — arguably because his sincerity appealed “to a broad cross section of people who felt they had been lied to during the Bush-Cheney years,” says Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Even if it hadn’t swept the country, libertarianism had at least overcome its reputation as an ideological sandbox where college boys played out their John Galt dreams.

Socialists are hopeful — and eager to draw the comparison. They argue that just as Paul tapped into popular anger over the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sanders has the opportunity to tap into Americans’ worry that the economic game is rigged against them. “There is a similar anger and hopelessness,” argues Maria Svart, national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s largest socialist organization. At his coming out on Capitol Hill, Sanders railed against child poverty, joblessness and the tax system, which he said create an economics that “is not only immoral, it’s not only wrong — it is unsustainable. It can’t continue.”  

Which all sounds pretty socialist to people like Svart. But Sanders isn’t running for president as a socialist per se, and some even dispute whether Sanders is “a socialist in the strict sense of the word,” as Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown, puts it. His vision is more about plumping up the welfare state than radically redistributing resources. Even so, Noel, an expert on U.S. political history and ideology, says that Sanders has a chance to reshape how Americans, especially younger ones, think about socialism: “Americans have not seen a self-identified socialist run for national office like this.”

To be sure, the United States has a long-running public aversion to socialism that it never had for libertarianism. For nearly 50 years after the end of World War II, it fought a Cold War — and plenty of proxy wars — against the so-called Red Threat. Even pink-tinged socialists were considered traitors, subject to blackballing and worse. Indeed, libertarianism first gained purchase as an antidote to the evils of socialism and communism.

Bernie Sanders

Socialists are eager to draw the comparison between Sen. Bernie Sanders and libertarian Ron Paul.

Source Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

To overcome socialism’s dubious reputation, Sanders would have to remind the public of the philosophy’s deep American roots, observers say, including the 1912 presidential candidacy of socialist Eugene V. Debs, who scored 6 percent of the popular vote, nearly a million ballots. And it appears there are at least some who are willing to listen: According to an analysis from a Reason-Rupe poll earlier this year, 36 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism. That’s a 5 percent climb from a similar poll’s results that the Pew Research Center conducted in 2011, in which 31 percent of Americans viewed socialism positively. 

There is, however, a chance that Sanders may have missed his moment. The grassroots Occupy Wall Street movement that brought so much attention to economic inequality in 2011 and 2012 has lost its steam. The unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 7 years. This year, stock markets around the world have broken record after record. And the housing market is slowly inching its way up from the depths of the 2008 crash. All of these indicators seem to be having an effect on the American economic psyche: A recent CNN/ORC poll reports that most Americans believe the economy is “good” or “very good.” 

That’s just a matter of overcoming false consciousness, as socialists like to put it. And even if Sanders doesn’t take the White House, Svart hopes he’ll continue to fight on and expand what is considered to be acceptable debate, in part by standing up for a label that once had a bad reputation: “He’s open about it and wears it proudly,” says Svart. “And he’s not backing off.”


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