Since Bernie Sanders won indisputable front-runner status after his victory in New Hampshire, his campaign has faced a renewed round of attacks. Some of these have been laughably maladroit, like the nonsense about Bernie’s supporters being the only people to ever be rude on the internet. Others, however, have been more substantive, actually intersecting with how real people think about politics. One of these is the question of socialism.
Ever since Bernie’s run in 2016, it has been clear that socialism is no longer the bugaboo it once was in American politics. When tens of millions of people vote for a self-described democratic socialist, it is no longer plausible to claim that socialism is an automatic disqualifier to being taken seriously in mainstream politics.
At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to conclude that socialist politics no longer present any barrier to electoral success. While polls show support for socialism has risen dramatically over the past decade, they also show that substantial opposition to socialism remains in much of the electorate. To win a national election, a compelling way of presenting socialism is still a must.
Since New Hampshire, Bernie has been rehearsing a new line on the question of socialism. As he put it in the most recent debate,
We are living, in many ways, in a socialist society right now. Problem is, as Dr Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
As a rhetorical strategy for popularizing socialism, I have to say, I doubt this will be successful. Arguing about what socialism “really” means has, in the long history of the movement, rarely convinced anyone of anything.
What’s more, the argument itself is confusing. Instead of arguing that socialism is good, now Bernie is arguing that there is good socialism and bad socialism, and that he is for good socialism. Trump, who says he’s not a socialist, is actually a bad socialist. Muddying the waters like this is not an effective way to convince people to vote for a socialist.
At the end of the day, Bernie is accusing Trump and other billionaires of being hypocrites, of not being true to their values. But we don’t want them to live up to their values because their values are rancid and destructive of human flourishing — we want to force them to live by ours.
Luckily, there are other ways of explaining socialism. For my money, I think the strongest is to rely on the Republican habit of labeling everything they don’t like as socialist. Instead of arguing with Trump about what socialism is, Bernie should agree.
He should point to the long line of policies that have been denounced as socialist and are now bedrock institutions of American life. Social Security? They called it socialist. Unions? A socialist project. Medicare? A socialist takeover of health care.
Bernie should say that every single time we have tried to make life better for working people in the United States, big business and its allies have denounced the attempt as socialist. And that’s precisely what Bernie’s socialism means today — a host of policies aimed at improving the lives of the vast majority of Americans by providing them with health care, jobs, and a clean planet to live on.
That’s a strategy for popularizing socialism even further, one that doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary complications. Trump, as we know, is afraid of going up against a socialist. Instead of arguing that Trump is a fake one, Bernie should double down on why he’s a real one.