Thanks to Bernie, socialism is no longer a dirty word

Bernie Sanders socialism
Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ economic equality platform more young people are identifying themselves as socialists. (Photo by Katie Anastas)

Hillary Clinton is all but assured of locking up the Democratic nomination today.

But the lasting legacy of Bernie Sanders’ stalwart campaign is likely to be a changing perception of socialism in the United States — especially among his younger supporters.

“As children, we were taught that if you’re liberal, you’re a Democrat, and if you’re conservative, you’re a Republican,” said Cole Peterson, a member of Huskies for Bernie, a UW student group supporting Sanders. “I always thought I was a Democrat, but this election has caused me to reconsider everything.”

Benjamin Lindsey, a leader of the neighborhood group Ballard for Bernie, noted the increase in online dictionary searches for “socialism” during Democratic debates.

“Socialism, before his campaign, was a pretty dirty word,” Lindsey said. “It has lost a lot of its venom and weight in the last year since he’s been running. Now, when you call someone a socialist, it actually means something, and people know what it means.”

Not always so negative

In the early 20th century, the label “socialist” didn’t stop candidates from winning elections. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 1,000 socialist candidates were elected to public office in the U.S., including members of Congress, legislators, mayors, and school board members. During that time, 380 newspapers affiliated with the Socialist Party sprung up throughout the country.

“I feel like socialism was popular in America and abroad when print media was becoming very popular, and people could share their ideas,” said Huskies for Bernie member Alik Myroniv. “I think the political and social environment that we have right now is perfect for something like socialism in its pure form to come out again.”

“We’ve seen the results of neoliberal capitalism…That’s failed us. A lot of people are looking for an alternative.”

Myroniv may be right. In May 2010, the Pew Research Center found that, among 18 to 29-year-olds, 43 percent had a positive view of socialism and 43 percent had a positive view of capitalism. A year and a half later, in December 2011, those numbers shifted, with 49 percent having a positive view of socialism and 46 percent having a positive view of capitalism. A January 2016 study conducted by YouGov suggested a continuation of that trend: 18 to 30-year-olds were the only age group that had more favorable views of socialism than capitalism.

When the 2011 study was released, Alexander Eichler of the Huffington Post noted that young people’s experiences with a poor economy might explain these shifting views and the popularity of the Occupy movement.

Rejecting the Cold War’s legacy

It was the Occupy movement that inspired Jordan Quin to join what he called the “millions of people looking for an alternative, getting into the streets, and getting active.” Quin is the University District outreach coordinator for Socialist Alternative, a national organization that gained prominence with the election Kshama Sawant — an independent socialist — to Seattle City Council.

Quin recognized the differences between today’s political environment and that of the Cold War period.

I never grew up with the Soviet Union — that place never existed for me,” he said. “When I was growing up, there was no talk of capitalism winning. But over the past 30 years, we’ve seen the results of neoliberal capitalism, and in my lifetime, that’s failed us. A lot of people are looking for an alternative.”

For many Democrats, and young ones especially, that alternative is democratic socialism, with an economic system similar to that of the Scandinavian countries.

Sanders cited these countries’ systems during the CNN Democratic debate in Las Vegas back in October 2015, saying that the United States should provide universal health care and paid family leave like they do.

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden, and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” he said.

Scandinavian inspiration

Kim Nesselquist, Honorary Consul of Norway for Washington and Idaho, acknowledged that many young Americans struggle to find jobs, pay for health insurance, and fund their college education.

“I think you guys are smart,” he said. “You want the government to take more responsibility for welfare and security around it. I think you’ve seen that flat economic development… and people are struggling with it.”

But Nesselquist pointed out that socialism at a national level is more challenging here than in small Scandinavian countries. The U.S. would need to consider its large population and regional differences if it were to implement large-scale welfare systems, he said.

“This country is huge,” he said. “It has many different states, many different regional economies. Seattle can handle, for example, $15 an hour much easier than Alabama can.”

From a $15 minimum wage to universal health care, Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals have led many voters to wonder, if it works in Scandinavia, why not here?

It may not be pure socialism, but for Quin and other young supporters, the fact that Sanders is even using the term has inspired them to challenge existing economic conditions.

“I think the fact that Bernie Sanders is doing so well is based upon the complete failure of neoliberal capitalism to actually fulfill people’s needs,” Quin said. “The fact that he’s calling himself a democratic socialist is clearly drawing a line between old, neoliberal politics and a new idea for working class young people.”