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What America’s Fear of Socialism Means for Bernie Sanders and the Future of Progressive Politics

By Nadia Newman

Bernie Sanders has not always been an advocate for labelling himself a Democratic Socialist. In a student publication at The University of Vermont in 1976, he said “I myself don’t use the word Socialism…people have been brainwashed into thinking Socialism automatically means slave-labour camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech”. However, since the 1980s he started identifying himself as a ‘Democratic Socialist’ and supporting taxpayer-funded programs like ‘Medicare for all’. In 2016 he ran to be the Democratic candidate under this label. Looking back at this time and to the present, it’s very interesting comparing the political state of America: to see shifts in the way ideas such as Socialism are received today.

We are currently in the middle of the primaries for the 2020 US election, where different states are winning ‘delegates’ (a person elected to the US House of Representatives). There are many delegates to be won by the Democratic candidates in each state, who will win them proportionally. At the end of the primaries, the candidate with the most delegates will win the nomination to go up against Donald Trump. Though the states are still in the middle of this process, the election could be compared to 2016, where the choice was between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And we all know how the end result for that election turned out.

Obviously, much has changed. From the 2016 primaries, there was little prospect from the Democratic party that Trump would win. His win turned the state of politics upside down, dismantling core ideas of truth and reaching to a far-right side of the political spectrum. Therefore, the increasingly polarised nature of US politics may suggest a need for the Democrats to be more radical in their ideas.

In US politics there is a fear that once a candidate is labelled a socialist, this will then prevent voters from seriously considering them as a candidate for the race. Bernie Sanders running as an ‘out’ socialist, then becomes really interesting. Despite him having been ‘out’ for a long time, running against Hillary Clinton as a labelled socialist, his values can be said to have sparked a change in politics. However, possibly as a by-factor of his success, other candidates, since dropped out of the race, Elizabeth Warren, proposed a ‘wealth tax’, and a much more widespread focus on the prospect of free healthcare. More progressive ideas in US politics have been enabled as a more popular option, but, noticeably, Elizabeth Warren rejected the ‘socialist’ label. Did Bernie in 2016 pave a path for a wave of Democrats with more left-wing ideas? And, currently, could this say a lot about the current political climate in the US, himself, being a Democrat who runs as a self labelled socialist? The idea of a ‘socialist’ president may be becoming a softer option for American voters.

Bernie’s support as a socialist candidate and a top Democratic candidate against Biden in 2020, who is firmly in the establishment of the Democratic party, could also be a reflection on a grandeur scale, in comparison to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is the congresswoman, a representative of New York’s 14th District who won this position in the mid-terms in 2018 and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. (If you want to know more about her, I really recommend the Netflix documentary, ‘Knock Down the House’, narrating her campaign and win in 2018). Her triumph was historic, running against the Democrat candidate, Rep. Joseph Crowley, who held the position for 10 terms and was well-known in the Democratic party establishment and by voters. In comparison, Alexandria is a young Latina woman from a working-class family, reflective of a new era in US politics. People like Ocasio-Cortez bring new change and more leftist values, challenging the establishment of the Democratic party. I am not saying the Democrats are becoming a socialist party, but I think there is something to take note of: the support candidates have received who are not fearful of the ‘socialist’ label. The rise in support for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on a smaller scale, and Bernie Sanders as self labelled ‘Democratic Socialists’ may project a more ‘compassionate’ approach to politics for a working class America.

There is a strangeness to the American fear of Socialism. There seems to be more fear of the word itself than some of the ideas. In the past, the word ‘Socialism’ has been weaponized by Republicans against social welfare programs led by the Democrats, such as the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Now, Trump mocks its ideas as something absurd and a way to slander Democratic candidates. Trump’s belief is that branding people as ‘socialist’ is an effective method for ruining their reputation. He is attempting to perpetuate a fear of the word so the candidates cannot threaten his possibility of a second presidential term.

An example of the extent of the fear behind Socialism at a high-end of the scale is in October 2018: a group of specialists in Trump’s White House produced a 72-page report, named ‘The Opportunity Costs of Socialism’.This was published a month before the mid-term elections and so, this could be the White House and Trump’s response to rising Socialism from candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reiterating narratives which further ingrain the fear of Socialism in American voters. Could this fear stem from the American voter’s lack of ability to distinguish between Communism and Socialism?

In the 2020 race so far, the narrative that overrides Democratic coverage of the election, is that no matter who wins the nomination, they will be supported to rid Trump of the White House. Despite a more progressive reach to voters from Sanders and Warren, this is no ‘usual’ election. Looking further into the race for the nomination comes the question: who is the most electable candidate? Does this mean that the Democratic party and voters will support the candidate who appeases the US as a whole, in an attempt to attain the most votes from Democrats and Republicans alike? Biden was branded as the ‘most electable’ at the beginning of the race and this may be an attempt to return to the allusion of a ‘status quo’, disrupted and manipulated by Trump. Biden sits firmly within the establishment of the Democratic party; although, perhaps more importantly for his popularity, Biden brings about a nostalgia for voters of the Obama era.

However, Bernie Sanders, the self-labelled socialist in American politics represents a shift. Even if he is unsuccessful in the 2020 primaries, his impact and legacy of being a forefront candidate in 2020 will influence future policies, candidates, and voter’s perspectives about Socialism.