Will Americans’ embrace of socialism wane without Sanders?


Even though it’s clear that democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cannot wrest the Democratic presidential nomination away from former vice president Joe Biden, a lot of people remain concerned that America is heading in a socialist direction. They may take Sanders’s popularity as a sign that others want to change fundamental institutions such as free markets and property rights. But people may want to take a step back. The term “socialism” has become so confused in this debate that it does not have a clear policy meaning; its use, rather, is a sign that “socialism” sounds positive to a number of Americans.

When Sanders says, “What democratic socialism is about is saying, ‘Let’s use the federal government to protect the interests of working families,’” he probably doesn’t mean that the government needs to control industry and abolish private property. He has called for the government to pay for a lot of things through taxes, but that’s well short of nationalizing private industry. Candidates in presidential primaries often promote the policies that appeal to their ideal voters and test the edges of the Overton Window of political possibilities. Or, to put it another way, it’s difficult to know exactly which definition of “democratic socialism” Sanders envisions. 

It is important, though, to try to understand what people hear, in addition to what candidates intend. And people think several different things when they hear about socialism.

There is a textbook definition of socialism as an economic system: The state controls the means of production. But that’s not what everyone thinks of when they’re told about socialism.

A 2018 Gallup poll asked, “What is your understanding of the term ‘socialism’?” The most frequent response was that it provides equal standing, equal rights, or equal distribution, a position held by 23 percent of people surveyed. But that’s about equality, not the standard textbook definition of socialism. Given that the most frequently given answer in the poll isn’t about who owns the means of production, it’s hard to say that most people think of state control of the economy when they say they think well of socialism.

The second most frequent response was not to express an opinion. That seems like a smart response when any discussion of a word is packed with misunderstanding. 

Other major contenders included 17 percent, with a definition close to the textbook one; 10 percent, with “more government”; 6 percent, with “communism” or “modified communism”; and 6 percent, with “being more social.” So people understand the term in a number of different ways.

A 2014 Reason-Rupe poll found a similar result in a poll of people ages 18 to 29. It found that respondents were more sympathetic than the overall population to the term “socialism.” But they still preferred a “free-market system” over a “government-managed economy” by a 2-to-1 margin. That is, when they heard “socialism,” they had a more positive reaction to the term, but they did not buy into the idea that the government should own businesses. 

Perhaps that positive association comes from living after the Cold War, when socialism isn’t the threat it used to be. Older people, though, still have a more negative reaction to the word.

When politicians and commentators speak of socialism positively, maybe their intent is to appeal to the people who react to socialism positively and disregard everyone else. Thus, it becomes a term that divides people, rather than taps into a common meaning. Socialism is one concept to the people who have a positive view of it, but a different one to people who have a negative view. 

This shows up in polling results as well. According to another Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans think that socialism would be good for the country and 51 percent think that it would be bad. That is not an even split, but given the dispute around the essential characteristics of socialism, it can mean that the term divides people into its supporters and its opposition.

The people on the right may consider socialism to be a “snarl term” — a word meant to convey a negative feeling. To them, socialists should be dismissed as fools who would destroy the American way, as socialism means government control of the economy. 

The people on the left may consider socialism to be a “purr term” — a word meant to convey a positive feeling. To them, socialism is where enlightened people want to be headed because it means more government support for the working class.

The word is a tool to distinguish oneself from others and unify allies, but it is not useful to persuade. People have an opinion about socialism, regardless of what others mean by the term. 

This ought to be positive news for the people on the right. If socialism is on the rise, it is unlikely that it means what they fear. 

There is a lesson for people on the left, too. If they want their ideas to appeal to those outside of the left, they should argue for their policies without using the label “socialist.” It repels the people they should want to persuade.

People should extend goodwill to others and try to use words in the same way as the people they seek to persuade. And we should also acknowledge that a term may be heard in ways which are unintended. There is a lot of work to be done to bridge the intellectual division surrounding the word “socialism.”

James M. Hohman is director of fiscal policy at Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute located in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Democratic socialism Economic ideologies Gallup Joe Biden Social democracy Socialism

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