Sanders versus Socialism

I really like David Graham’s take on Bernie.  Bernie’s support seems to be far more about Bernie, than about socialism:

But Sanders’s narrow victory in New Hampshire, following an effective tie in Iowa with Pete Buttigieg, is much more a victory for Bernie Sanders than for socialism. For all the focus on “us,” voters seem to be gravitating more to Sanders the candidate than to his platform.

As an ideologue, Sanders faces challenges. Though he has modulated his tone since his earliest political excursions—more Franklin D. Roosevelt and less Rosa Luxemburg, as my colleague Franklin Foer pithily put it—Sanders’s politics, which he calls democratic socialism, are not yet all that popular. There is no question that the Democratic Party has moved left in recent years, and as I have reported, that shift is actually more pronounced among voters than it is among the party’s candidates, notwithstanding highly visible officeholders such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Overall, however, American views on socialism remain mixed to negative. Democrats, especially young ones, are growing more favorable toward socialism—a term that’s rather vague in most polls. But among Americans at large, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a slight majority (53 percent) held a negative view of socialism, versus 19 percent whose views were positive. (Capitalism polls much better, 52 percent for and 18 percent against.) And in a second poll, 53 percent of respondents told Gallup they would not vote for a socialist for president.

Even within the Democratic Party, though, views of socialism as a concept may be very different from opinions on specific policies. Consider Medicare for All, Sanders’s signature proposal. People tend to like the idea when they’re simply asked about that name. Tell them it means they’ll lose their private insurance and they start to soften. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris each initially embraced Sanders’s Medicare for All, but backed away when they started to see it as a political liability. Now Harris is out of the race, and Warren has fallen out of the top tier…

As The New York Times notes, Sanders’s recent surge in polls is largely due to an influx of support from black and Latino voters. (Biden still leads by a wide margin among African Americans overall.) Sanders faces an uphill battle here, because minority voters are more likely to identify as moderates, but nonwhites said in a recent CNN poll that Sanders understands their problems better than Biden—another sign of personal, rather than policy-specific, appeal.

Matt Yglesias flags a survey from Data for Progress that shows Sanders leading President Donald Trump in head-to-head polls, even when voters are cued with a mention of Sanders’s socialism. It doesn’t make much difference—the Vermonter leads either way. Yglesias theorizes that Trump’s attempts at red-scaring aren’t working. That’s possible, but it’s also possible that the “socialist” tag simply doesn’t hurt Sanders, because voters like him personally.

Personal appeal also explains why Sanders has flourished, including in places like Iowa, while other self-described socialists have not. When Democrats nominated left-wing candidates for congressional districts in Republican territory, those candidates flopped, while more moderate ones were more likely to succeed.

This is not to say that some of Sanders’s policies are not popular—both with Democrats and with the broader population. But as Sanders himself has noted, this is less a sign of incipient revolution than it is of the vagueness of the socialist label and the existing, if underappreciated, leftist tendencies already present in American society…

The idea that Sanders’s popularity is driven by, well, his popularity, rather than a sudden leftward shift, rebukes many of the narratives about him. Lefties young (like Sanders’s base) and old (like himself) should be careful of overinterpreting his electoral success in this primary. Support for socialism is growing, but anyone other than Sanders would likely struggle to match his results.

No doubt, Sanders’ strong advocacy for lefty ideas is a big part of his popularity, but I think an overlooked part of that is his strong, clearly authentic, and unwavering support.  The majority of voters are not very ideological at all.  But they clearly like politicians who offer forceful, consistent messages (even if those messages are pie in the sky).  It’s hard to untangle Sanders appeal from Sanders’ strong “socialist” reputation, but, I do think to an unappreciated degree, it’s that “strong” part as much as the “socialist” that is providing his support.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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