Bill Gates, the billionaire computer maven who owes his fortune to capitalism, recently made comments that appeared to endorse socialism – and it might be an inadvertent boon for Bernie Sanders.
In an interview with Atlantic that made headlines across the Internet, the former Microsoft CEO-turned philanthropist argued that "the private sector is in general inept" as a tool to manage climate change because "there's no fortune to be made," and that the only solution lies with government.
Governments, he said, must dramatically increase spending on research and development to combat climate change. Private companies should play a supporting role by paying the costs of rolling out those technologies.
“Yes, the government will be somewhat inept,” Mr. Gates said. “But the private sector is in general inept. How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly? By far most of them.”
To be sure, it was not a blanket condemnation of capitalism, nor a blanket endorsement of socialism. Still, in a country where socialism is seen by a generation of Americans as a negative, often associated with Communism and the Soviet Union, Gates' comments, combined with those of Vermont Senator Sanders, could open a new debate in America, and possibly signal a shift in American views toward capitalism and socialism.
After all, one of the wealthiest men in America just offered an endorsement for socialism, and one of the men who could become America's next president is a self-described socialist whose proposal to reduce wealth inequality is a central part of his platform.
That candidate, of course, is Sanders, who has repeatedly and proudly upheld his socialist views throughout his campaign.
Sanders supported the socialist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, went on a diplomatic trip in 1988 as mayor of Burlington, Vermont (which doubled as his honeymoon) to the Soviet Union, told a Sunday news show he's not a capitalist, and, in the first Democratic presidential debate, praised the healthcare system in Denmark, which has been called one of the top 10 most socialist countries in the world (curiously, the list excludes the officially Marxist-Leninist states of Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos, although it includes China).
Throughout his surprisingly successful run, Sanders has made a moral argument against wealth inequality, and has campaigned for free college education, a national health-care program guaranteeing coverage for all people, a higher minimum wage, and higher taxes on the wealthy.
Yet, Sanders has been enjoying broad grassroots support, turned out a strong performance in the first Democratic debate, and is second only to Hillary Clinton in the polls and in fundraising.
His mark on the 2016 race is so strong, some political observers have posited that he's pushed Mrs. Clinton, who has also made combating income inequality a major plank in her platform, further left. And now, some say Gates' comments may offer Sanders a boost.
Are Sanders, Clinton, and now Gates, evidence of warming attitudes toward socialism?
Possibly, but at a glacial pace.
Three years ago, a Pew Research survey found that 31 percent of Americans reacted positively to the word “socialism,” while 60 percent reacted negatively. This year, a June 2015 Gallup poll found 47 percent of respondents said they would vote for a socialist if their party nominated one.
Some groups are more inclined to view socialism favorably.
Low-income Americans (43 percent) are twice as likely as higher-income Americans (22 percent) to view socialism positively, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2011.
And among 18-to-29-year olds, 49 percent had a positive view of socialism, while 47 percent had a positive view of capitalism.
The acceptance of socialism among younger Americans suggests the presence of a generation gap.
"For older people, socialism is associated with Communism and the Soviet Union and the Cold War," Michelle Diggles, a senior political analyst at liberal think tank Third Way, told The International Business Times.
"But the oldest Millennials were 8 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. They have never known a world where the Soviet Union exists ... The connotations associated with the word 'socialism' just don't exist with millennials."
Which is why Sanders and now, Gates, might just represent future American attitudes toward socialism.