How can voters hate socialism but agree with Bernie?

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.


Is Bernie personally secular?


Interesting piece in the Washington Post discussing the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of Bernie Sanders. The article speculates that he may be an agnostic.

I contacted his office a few years ago on this subject in connection with work I was doing for secular nonprofits. I asked his office staff if we could discuss his religion. The response I got: “Bernie doesn’t like to talk about religion.”

At the time Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) was the first and only open atheist in Congress. He has since retired, so now there are none, though we know that there are at least a couple dozen who are closeted atheists and agnostics. Like Bernie, however, those who are personally secular tend to not like talking about religion. Too bad, as openly secular candidates and office holders could help change the hyper-religious atmosphere in politics, and that could have a big effect on public policy.

Hillary’s Secular Credentials Are Less Than Perfect

Blogger Debbie Goddard has posted an interesting piece about her interactions with then-senator Hillary Clinton in 2002, shortly after an appeals court in California had declared the “under God” wording of the Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional. American lawmakers are quick to pander to constituents with outward displays of God-fearing patriotism, so it’s no surprise that many responded with outrage at the court’s decision. Unfortunately, as Goddard shows, Clinton not only did nothing to rise above the fray, but used the opportunity to assert her troubling views on the Pledge.

A Senate resolution was soon introduced to “support the Pledge of Allegiance,” and Senator Clinton decided to co-sponsor it. Goddard, a secular New York resident, wrote a letter to Clinton about the resolution, and she received a response that was hardly reassuring. Clinton told Goddard that “we should never forget the blessings of Divine Providence” and insisted that “we are indeed on nation under God.” Clinton even took the opportunity to connect theistic patriotism to militarism, saying it was especially important to support the Pledge wording “[w]hile our men and women in uniform are battling overseas.”



The entire Goddard post, which also includes some of Clinton’s floor speech in support of the Pledge resolution, can be seen here. (Historical note: the 2002 appeals court ruling was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality.)

Another detail about Clinton that gives pause to seculars is her connection to The Family, a secretive conservative religious group that includes many powerful Washington politicians as members. Clinton’s relationship with The Family has been known for years (see this NPR piece from 2009), but has been given little attention as her presidential campaign has moved forward.

Maybe it’s time for secular Americans to start asking more questions of candidate Clinton?

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