Feb 29, 2020 - Politics & Policy
What Matters 2020

Bernie Sanders' big socialism rebrand

Illustration of Bernie making a familiar hand gesture of his in the style of a socialist-style closed fist poster

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Bernie Sanders is trying to rebrand socialism in the U.S., but he'll have to overcome common fears about what the word means — fears the Trump campaign is watching and waiting to exploit.

Why it matters: Sanders may face a major challenge in convincing Americans in their 40s or older that there's a meaningful difference between what he supports, described as democratic socialism, and the authoritarian socialism that we've seen in regimes like Venezuela.

Be smart: No nuance will stop the Trump campaign, or Republicans in general, from painting Sanders as a dangerous threat.

  • He'll just be "Socialist Bernie Sanders," without any of the discussion of how democratic socialism might be different.
  • Even if Sanders doesn't win the nomination, Trump's team will use his influence to paint the Democratic Party as socialist and therefore dangerous.
  • "It doesn’t matter to us who is carrying the banner," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told Axios. Because, he said, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and raising taxes are all "big government socialist issues."

Trump's attacks could be effective. Sanders' defense of Castro appears already to have hurt him in Florida. But William Galston, an expert in political theory at Brookings Institution, told Axios that if Trump tries to paint even moderate Democrats as socialists, then "the term loses all of its meaning and it just becomes an all-purpose epithet."

Between the lines: Sanders' democratic socialism is more about softening capitalism and compensating for growing economic inequality. It takes a lot from Scandinavian social democracies and builds on existing programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

  • "We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism," Sanders said in a speech last year.

Sanders isn't the only high-profile Democrat to embrace the label. It's how Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defines her politics, too.

  • Both call themselves democratic socialists for a reason. They embrace democratic elections and democratically shaped social and economic policy, not authoritarian regimes like in Venezuela and Fidel Castro's Cuba.
  • Sanders has already begun to bring once-taboo ideas to the mainstream — like Medicare for All, which has influenced some of his Democratic presidential campaign rivals and has defined the health care discussion in practically every Democratic debate.

Reality check: Even if the Trump campaign's attacks on Sanders go overboard, he is proposing a huge expansion of government — through programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — that could bring massive costs and have business impacts that could play out in unpredictable ways.

The big picture: Classically, socialism refers to the government ownership of industries and finance rather than by private individuals, Galston said.

  • Unlike communism, socialism doesn't dictate what kind of political process should be set up. Communism demands complete control by a single political party. Sanders calls for a democratically elected government.
  • But many of the first socialist countries ended up run by corrupt, authoritarian governments, which has bred a generations-old fear of socialism in the U.S.

Classic socialism has influenced the politics and policies of people like Sanders and AOC. For example, Sanders' Medicare for All and his proposal for public ownership of some energy producers are socialist ideas, Galston said.

  • Sanders' vision looks more to places like Denmark and Sweden, Galston said, which is why those countries come up in debates. Sanders wants the government to guarantee a certain level of material well-being and security more than he wants broader public ownership of industry.

What they're saying: Many Americans, especially older generations, can't shake socialism's associations with communism and strict government control. But younger generations are buying it.

  • 70% of millennials said they were at least somewhat likely to vote for a socialist candidate, as Axios reported, while just 44% of Generation X and 36% of baby boomers said the same.
  • "For people who had decades of experience with undemocratic and higher repressive socialist governments and countries," Galston said, "it's going to be very hard to disentangle those memories from the meaning of the word."
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