Americans have never elected a socialist president. But this year, they might: The Democratic Party’s primary front-runner is a socialist. A Tuesday morning NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll gave Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont a double-digit lead over the rest of his competitors in the primary. In all but one head-to-head matchup poll, he defeats Donald Trump. Nationally, Sanders is one of the most popular politicians in the country, according to a ranking by YouGov.
But American voters contain multitudes. While they like Sanders, they’re less than enthusiastic about socialism itself. In a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, “only 35 percent of Americans said they would even consider voting in a general election for a candidate who called himself or herself a ‘democratic socialist,’” Yahoo reported. Nor did voters appreciate the distinction between socialism writ large, and the democratic socialism that Sanders professes. Thirty-eight percent said the two ideologies are the same, and 38 percent said they are different, a useful reminder that the average person does not use Twitter.
The gap between what Americans think of Sanders and what they say they think of socialism is not new. In one Monmouth University poll released in 2019, 57 percent said that socialism is “incompatible with American values.” Americans love Sanders, they hate socialism; when forced to reconcile this contradiction, their hate will win out. Or so goes the “pragmatic” anti-Sanders case, the alleged rationale for Michael Bloomberg’s campaign, and more broadly, the case for Democrats to embrace any one of the moderate candidates in the race.
But self-appointed electability experts overstate their case. We do not live in the Cold War era, and post-recession, socialism isn’t quite the no-go zone it used to be. The public’s views are changing. Although this doesn’t erase the gap as a potential risk to the viability of the Sanders campaign, it does suggest Sanders can afford to run as a socialist.
Gallup has been measuring American attitudes toward socialism for decades, and their research is useful here. America might not be ready for a socialist revolution, but public attitudes toward the ideology have warmed over time: Americans in 2018 were almost twice as likely as Americans in 1943 to say that socialism means equality, defined as “equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution.”
The trajectory of Sanders’s career is further proof that socialism isn’t a death knell. He is no longer a little-known senator from Vermont. This is his second run for president, and he has high name recognition. His social media reach alone is massive: Nearly 13 million people follow the official Facebook pages for his Senate office and his presidential campaign, combined. People know who he is and what he believes. Sanders may in fact be one of the few American politicians lifted from relative obscurity by the strength of his ideas, which is to say that he is popular because of his left economic platform, not in spite of it. In the process, he’s likely helped diminish the stereotypes that created the gap in the first place.
The platform Sanders has elevated does not feel as radical as the level of inequality many of his supporters experience. Reality lessens the impact of Red-baiting. For decades, members of both major parties told Americans that left-wing ideas would harm them — and could even kill them, as the nation’s premier rogue warrior Sarah Palin once warned of the Affordable Care Act. But Red Dawn is still fiction. A thousand real doomsdays occur every week. Insurance companies already cut people off from necessary care; rationing isn’t a distant possibility, limited to some future socialist administration, but a present danger. With such tangible horrors on offer, why should anyone fear the Bolshevik under the bed? The unrestrained and unapologetic capitalism of Donald Trump is more dangerous, and less popular, than any idea Sanders will likely suggest.
Combine those factors with the consistency of his ideology, and the historical importance of his campaign becomes clear. No single candidate for president can inspire a working-class revolution, as some on the left have suggested. Workers don’t need a savior figure; if socialism is to win, it must be shaped by the material demands of the working class, not constricted by the limitations of the electoral process. But Sanders does have an opportunity to make socialism more palatable to the very people who need it the most.