Bernie Sanders says he's not a capitalist: Does it matter?

Senator Sanders’ biggest problem for the primaries is not defining his 'ism.'

David R. Jennings/Daily Camera/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, Colo., on Saturday.

Bernie Sanders says he’s not a capitalist. That’s what he told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” Sunday, in any case. Mr. Todd asked him directly whether he was a person of the small-c capitalist persuasion, and Senator Sanders gave him a direct answer.

“No,” said the Democratic hopeful. “I’m a Democratic Socialist.”

Does this doom Senator Sanders’ presidential chances? The savvy Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post’s Fix blog thinks it does. Capitalism is a pretty popular concept in the US, points out Mr. Cillizza, while socialism is politically polarizing. A Pew poll from a few years back found that 50 percent of Americans had a favorable view of capitalism, while socialism came in at 31 percent favorable, and a whopping 60 percent unfavorable.

“Americans might be increasingly aware of the economic inequality in the country and increasingly suspicious of so-called vulture capitalism – all of which has helped fuel Sanders’ rise,” writes Cillizza. “But we are not electing someone who is an avowed socialist to the nation’s top political job. Just ain’t happening.”

Well, we’d agree that the statement could cause lots of problems for Sanders in a general election. That’s obvious. But if we were running Sanders’ campaign, we’d put that noncapitalist rhetoric out of our head (or try to) and worry about dealing with it down the road.

Why? Two reasons. One is that Sanders’ first hurdle is winning the Democratic nomination. Only then would he face a Republican nominee who’d batter him with ads saying he’s a card-carrying Socialist.

Yes, Hillary Clinton might try that if things get close. But polls show that Democrats care less about the capitalist/socialist nomenclature than Republicans.

Sanders’ biggest problem for the primaries is not defining his “ism.” It’s attracting African-American voters, one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies. For instance, in South Carolina – an early primary state with a large black population – Sanders is only getting 3 percent of the African-American vote, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll. That’s abysmal.

Interestingly, as the campaign has wound along, Sanders isn’t becoming better known among minority voters, while other candidates are. Yet his name recognition is rising among whites.

Maybe there’s just something about Sanders that makes it difficult for him to communicate with minority groups on their terms, writes FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten. Perhaps he can begin to solve that problem with a solid performance in Tuesday night’s debate.

The second reason why the “capitalist” comment may not doom Sanders is that individual comments, gaffes, slips, or statements generally have little effect. There are very few, if any, actual game-changers in a political campaign.

If Sanders does win the nomination, he’ll have his own ads. In the past, he’s said that capitalism is a good thing in that it creates an entrepreneurial spirit and gets people thinking about new ideas; he’ll probably say that again. He’d put that up on the airwaves as a counter, and then the net effect depends on campaign strength.

Look, it’s true that Bernie Sanders is still unlikely to win the Oval Office. Self-described liberal voters are a smaller force in US politics than their conservative counterparts. Democratic socialism, defined as European-style leftist politics with broad state intervention in some economic activities, would be a radical change for America.

But Sanders’s success or failure will depend more broadly on the sum of his political life, as opposed to snippets and sound bites. 

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