It’s a glaring inconsistency this campaign season: voters generally agree with self-described socialist Bernie Sanders on the issues, but Americans nevertheless rank “socialist” at the bottom of candidate characteristics for which they will vote.
According to recent Gallup numbers, Americans would vote for an atheist, a Muslim, a gay/lesbian, or just about anyone else, before they would vote for a socialist. The label “socialist” was the only category garnering acceptance from less than than half of the voting population (47 percent). Nevertheless, at the same time, the socialist Sanders not only maintains a competitive candidacy for the Democratic nomination, but his positions on issues are undeniably mainstream, enjoying widespread popular support
Several plausible factors explain this contradiction:
First, Americans have been conditioned to reflexively oppose “socialism” even though they obviously support many basic socialistic concepts, such as controlling corporate power, taxing the wealthy, and providing strong social safety nets (this explains popular support for Social Security, for example, despite GOP and Wall Street efforts to dismantle it or privatize it). The American habit of demonizing socialism is due, at least in part, to incessant anti-socialist propaganda from politicians, religious leaders, and corporate interests. Socialism is seen as un-American, even as Americans clearly support socialistic concepts.
In defense of American voters, however, it’s worth noting that Sanders is a fairly soft socialist. He’s not talking about nationalizing industries, for example, but is instead more concerned about providing services, limiting the power of multinational corporations, and addressing income inequality. Sanders may call himself a socialist, but his brand of socialism is on the model of European mixed economies.
Nevertheless, there is a hint of anti-intellectualism in Americans simplistically dismissing socialism as evil while supporting many socialistic notions (the now-classic line, “Keep your goddamn government hands off my Medicare!” naturally comes to mind). Sooner or later, the nation will have to address the contradiction: either socialism isn’t so bad, or Americans don’t really want the egalitarian policy they say they want.