How Democrats Should Approach the S-Word

Democrats don’t have to fight for socialism. But they will have to get good at fighting for the programs that Trump will gleefully label as socialist.

Bernie Sanders
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Whether or not Bernie Sanders secures the Democratic nomination, his candidacy has created a political challenge of no small consequence to the Democratic Party. The fact that Sanders is a democratic socialist has opened up a line of attack for Donald Trump: red-baiting. And Trump has made clear that he will not attack only Sanders and other democratic socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The president and his allies will attack all Democrats, which means that all Democrats will find themselves wrestling with the question of how to address the S-word in 2020. Fortunately, that’s not nearly as daunting a prospect as some political seers would have us believe.

The emergence of democratic socialism as a force within the Democratic Party should be understood not merely as a challenge, but also as an opportunity. The challenge is well understood. Trump’s "we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country” talk so spooked Democratic strategists, consultants, and pundits that, well before Joe Biden’s recent surge, they were speaking openly about thwarting Sanders. Among centrist Democrats, the belief is strong that the party can elbow aside Sanders, take the subject of socialism off the table, attract moderates from the old Republican Party, beat Trump, and form a new center where everything will be the same as it ever was.

These fantasists refuse to accept the future that has already arrived. They ignore the fact that a mid-February NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 50 percent of the Democratic Party faithful had a favorable impression of socialism (compared with a 40 percent favorable rating for capitalism), and that a Gallup poll conducted around the same time found that 76 percent of Democratic voters would willingly cast a ballot for a socialist. That’s not the same as saying that the nominee must be Sanders or someone else on the left, but it does suggest that a good many Democratic voters, and potential Democratic voters, are unlikely to be motivated by a fall Democratic campaign that takes its messaging cues from a Cold War playbook. Exit polls from Super Tuesday confirmed that favorable views of socialism across all regions. Sixty percent of Maine Democratic votes had a favorable view of socialism, as did 56 percent of Democratic voters in Texas, 52 percent in California, 50 percent in North Carolina, and 47 percent in Tennessee.

Between Trump’s inevitable ranting and raving about what he wants Americans to see as a red menace and the sincere embrace of socialism by a sizable chunk of the left, Democrats will have no choice but to speak in savvy, nuanced ways about an ideology that has guided the affairs of many of this country’s closest allies, and that once held sway in city halls across the United States—including that of Milwaukee, where this summer’s Democratic National Convention will be held.

The best line of defense is to go on the offense. Democrats don’t have to fight for socialism. But they will have to get good at fighting for the programs that Trump and other Republicans will gleefully label as socialist—health-care reforms even if they are short of Medicare for All, climate-crisis responses even if they are short of a Green New Deal. Sanders, who aligned himself with the American socialist vision of Eugene V. Debs and A. Philip Randolph in the early 1960s, figured out a long time ago that it is possible to win statewide races—in the formerly Republican bastion of Vermont—as a democratic socialist who talks about Norway and Denmark and the social-democratic underpinnings of beloved programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But what about Democrats who until now have scrupulously avoided discussing left-wing politics?

For counsel, Democrats should turn to Harry Truman, who in the midst of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare rejected Republican talk of “creeping socialism” as what it was: political spin designed to get Americans to vote against their own best interest. He told a crowd in Syracuse, New York, in 1952:

Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank-deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.

Good line. Here’s another one, from a more contemporary contender. In the early stages of his 2020 Democratic presidential bid, before he decided that he was going to take a turn as a grumpy-old-man centrist who griped about “the revolutionary politics of the 1960s” and ended up endorsing Biden, Pete Buttigieg gave a perfectly Millennial response to a question from CNN’s Jake Tapper about Trump’s “never be a socialist country" line:

You can no longer simply kill off a line of discussion about a policy by saying that it's socialist. If someone my age or younger is weighing a policy idea, and somebody comes along and says ‘You can't do that; it's socialist,’ I think our answer will be, ‘Is it a good idea or is it not?’ That idea has lost its power when you think about the way it was applied to characterize the ACA: the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, invented by a conservative think tank, relying on market principles, implemented first by a Republican governor. And they said that was socialist. So I think the word has mostly lost its meaning.

Candidates who want to avoid the trap of protesting too much about the president’s accusations of secret socialism would do well to recall those Truman and Buttigieg lines—to shrug off the label and endorse the underlying policies. That might get them out of a spot. If Democrats want to actually move the debate forward, however, they’re going to have to level with the American people about why socialism has suddenly gained so much traction—especially with the young voters the party must mobilize in November.

This country is in the midst of an economic, social, and political transformation that is going to require a whole lot of new and different thinking. “I’ve been talking to Americans around the country about automation. And they’re smart. They see what’s happening around them," explained Andrew Yang before he dropped out of the 2020 race. "Their Main Street stores are closing. They see a self-serve kiosk in every McDonald’s, every grocery store, every CVS.”

Yang did not run as a socialist, but he embraced ideas such as Medicare for All because many ideas that have long been dismissed as radical make a lot of sense to Americans who are already experiencing the combination of a globalization revolution, a digital revolution, and an automation revolution. Trump’s answer is to slap the slogan “Make America great again” on a red hat. That shouldn’t have worked in 2016, but it did because Democrats failed to fully recognize the sources of anxiety that left Americans open to impractical, absurd, racist, and xenophobic appeals. That shouldn’t work in 2020, but it could if Democrats fail to recognize that the answer to Trump’s “America again” politics is an “America next” politics that considers ideas such as Medicare for All, free higher education, technical training, and a Green New Deal not as ideological pipe dreams but as necessary responses to a new age.

Democrats can run from “socialist” ideas because they fear being labeled socialists. Or they can explain that Americans cannot afford to toss ideas overboard, whether they are socialist, libertarian, or so new that they are as yet unclassified.