A factor behind Bernie Sanders' appeal: Changing attitudes toward socialism

The independent Democratic candidate has repeatedly upheld his socialist views throughout his presidential campaign.

LE Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a news conference following a speech at the 59th annual Nevada State AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention at the Luxor Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas.

When a New York Times reporter asked President Obama whether his domestic policies suggested that he was a socialist in 2009, the president responded with a laugh: “The answer would be no.”
After the interview, Mr. Obama called the reporter back to elaborate on his answer, saying, “It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.” 

“That socialist question” has taken on a new form these days, revolving around the only self-described socialist in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination: Bernie Sanders. 

While Obama chuckled at the thought of socialism in that interview six years ago, Mr. Sanders has repeatedly upheld his socialist views throughout his presidential campaign by largely targeting income inequality. Hillary Clinton has also made income inequality a major plank in her 2016 campaign platform. But, arguably, Sanders has a more consistent claim to the subject.

During a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in June, Sanders avoided questions about his campaign opponents and steered the discussion towards the “enormously serious problems” he hopes to improve:   

“Should college education be available to all regardless of their income? 

“Why are we the only major country on Earth without a national health-care program guaranteeing health care for all people?

“Why is the middle class of this country disappearing?

“Is it moral that we have massive wealth and income inequality?"

These questions may resonate with low-income Americans who are seeking effective solutions. According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2011, low-income Americans (43%) are twice as likely as higher-income Americans (22%) to view socialism positively.

More recent data show a slight shift towards the once-out-of-favor ideology among several groups.

In response to a Gallup poll in June, 47 percent of surveyors said they would vote for a socialist if their party nominated one, while 50 percent said they would not. Only three years ago, the Pew Research survey found that 31 percent of Americans reacted positively to the word “socialism,” while 60 percent reacted negatively. 

And Sanders’ call to go “beyond establishment politics” may appeal to one group whose political views tend to fall in a grey area: Millennials.

The 2011 Pew Research survey showed that among 18-to-29-year olds, 49 percent had a positive view of socialism, while 47 percent had a positive view of capitalism.

Younger Americans aren’t as set on their political views as their parents or grandparents because socialism means different things to different generations, Michelle Diggles, a senior political analyst at liberal think tank Third Way, told The International Business Times.

"For older people, socialism is associated with Communism and the Soviet Union and the Cold War," she said.

"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."

Though Sanders’ views on several policy issues, such as climate change, campaign finance reform and the regulation of Wall Street, align with those of many Americans, time will tell whether the rest of the country is ready for a socialist president. 

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