Sanders gaining in Iowa: Is America finally ready for socialism?

As Hillary Clinton's lead recedes in polls for the Iowa caucuses, a new survey shows that a sizable portion of Democratic voters identify as socialists, many of whom support Bernie Sanders. But socialism may not be such a new trend after all. 

Chris Keane/Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes a selfie with supporters after a campaign rally at the South Carolina Democratic Party headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina November 21, 2015.

As Bernie Sanders edges closer to Hillary Clinton in the Iowa polls, one thing is becoming clear: Instead of being a liability, his socialist platform may be his strongest asset.

In fact, it seems that socialism in general is embraced currently, despite its historical stigma in the United States. The new Selzer & Co. Iowa poll found that 43 percent of likely voters in the Feb. 1 Democratic Iowa caucuses would use the word “socialist” to describe themselves.

The poll offered an array of political or ideological adjectives, such as “politically correct” and “gun enthusiast,” and asked voters to answer "yes" or "no" to as to whether the words can be used to describe themselves. The answers are predictably split down partisan lines. For instance, for “gun enthusiasts,” 53 percent of Republicans said "yes," compared with only 16 percent of Democrats.

Interestingly enough, “capitalist” also proved to be a partisan label. While a considerable portion of Democratic Iowa caucus-goers were eager to label themselves socialists, fewer would described themselves as capitalist – only 38 percent.

But it isn't just in Iowa that socialism is being seen as an emerging Democratic brand. The Selzer & Co. poll found that tepid but substantial support for socialism reflects a national acceptance. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll, 47 percent of surveyed voters around the country say they would vote for a socialist. Among Democrats, that figure grows to 59 percent.

In The New York Times/CBS News poll conducted November, 56 percent of Democratic primary voters nationally said they felt positive about socialism as a governing philosophy, versus 29 percent who took a negative view.

While not every socialist voter supports Mr. Sanders – about a third are more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton – the majority do so. For some political experts, the mass appeal of socialism remains a mystery. As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson writes,

[T]he puzzle remains of how Sanders is running so strongly for a major-party nomination in the United States when he has willingly associated himself with a word – “socialist” – that not long ago was considered disqualifying, the stuff of loyalty hearings. It may be that it was so taboo that its meaning has become obscure, or open to reinterpretation. Sanders points to Scandinavia; there is no more Warsaw Pact. According to Merriam-Webster, “socialism” was the most looked-up term in its online dictionary in 2015. (The runner-up was “fascism.”)

But American’s subtle embrace of socialism is not a fresh trend – especially not among younger and Democratic voters. Surveys show that Democrats and other demographic groups were already warmed up to the idea of “socialism” half a decade ago.

In a 2009 Rasmussen poll, only 53 percent of Americans said they believed capitalism was better than socialism. A December 2011 Pew survey found that while 60 percent of Americans viewed socialism negatively, 59 percent of liberal democrats were in support of it. And nearly half of young voters under the age of 29, regardless of political standing, viewed socialism positively. Meanwhile, the vast majority of voters ages 65 and above were not so keen on socialism – 72 percent opposed it.

Although socialist stances are garnering support from primary Democratic voters as younger generations of Americans, tolerant of socialism, come to voting age, it’s uncertain how Bernie Sanders and his remodeled 21st-century brand of socialism will fare in the general election.

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