According to recent polls, most Americans also believe that the government has a moral duty to provide all citizens with health care. A full 70 percent approve of a public option, which would allow all Americans to buy into Medicare. This would give universal or near-universal health coverage to Americans, and amount to a massive wealth transfer from rich to poor.
These findings have emboldened progressives in the party to claim that they won’t have to pay an electoral price for embracing policies—or labels—that would have seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago. In his big speech on socialism and authoritarianism, for example, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that Republican presidential candidates have always tried to scare voters off by portraying their Democratic opponents as socialists. “I welcome their hatred,” he said, quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.
More mainstream figures within the party have, of late, adopted the same argument. Speaking during the latest presidential debate, for example, Mayor Pete Buttigieg echoed Sanders’s rhetoric: “It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. If we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there, and defend it.”
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Seductive as these arguments may seem, they fly in the face of compelling evidence about the kind of radicalism that American voters are—and, just as importantly, are not—willing to countenance. While Americans seem more open to progressive economic policy now than in the recent past, for example, they are not nearly as opposed to capitalism as some Democrats like to claim. The same Voter Study Group survey that found strong support for breaking up big banks also found that a plurality of Americans object to the idea of the government reducing differences in income and favor less regulation.
Other polls make clear that most Americans remain hostile to socialism. According to the most detailed study on the question, conducted by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans have a positive view of capitalism, while 42 percent have a positive view of socialism. Some 55 percent have either a very negative or somewhat negative view of socialism.
Sanders and Buttigieg are right in one respect: Like many of his Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama was able to win two presidential elections despite being tarred as a socialist at every turn. But it stands to reason that Obama was able to win in part because most voters dismissed Fox News’ attacks. It is unlikely that Sanders or Buttigieg could pull off the same feat if voters thought the attacks were accurate. (This is especially true in the case of Sanders, who actively embraces the socialist label.)