t is a gray winter day on Capitol Hill, and the old man in the dark trench coat is shuffling along, carrying his white plastic bag crammed with a mix of papers and containers. His hair is a shock of white that spikes in odd directions, looking permanently windblown even on a calm day. He hunches over as he walks and pauses only occasionally to push his metal-framed glasses up his nose. As he goes to cross the street, a young man in a sports car pauses in the intersection to yell out the window.

“We love you man! Woo! Feel the Bern!”

The old man in the trench coat is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist and the longest-serving independent in congressional history. Twenty-five years ago, he was the lone socialist serving in Congress, a backbencher who alienated his colleagues, and while he caucused with the Democrats, he rarely worked with them and was even more rarely taken seriously by them. He had virtually no national following for his socialist ideas.

Today, Sanders is a serious contender for the nomination of the Democratic Party. He surged in Iowa to essentially tie front-runner Hillary Clinton in the state, telling a cheering crowd of supporters that “what Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution.” In New Hampshire, Sanders won in a blowout 22-point victory that prompted reports of a Clinton staff shakeup. According to exit polls, one third of Democratic voters said that the most important issue in the election was “income inequality”—and Sanders won 71 percent of them.

Sanders holds massive events populated by kids who think what he is preaching is very cool. He has no finance chair or traditional fundraising operation to speak of, but his small-donor operation has racked up huge numbers, with more than 3.5 million donations to Sanders’s campaign. That nearly matches Clinton’s effort dollar for dollar in the last six months of 2015. After his win in New Hampshire, he raised $6.4 million in less than a day.

Just a few years ago, the idea that Bernie Sanders, former member of the Socialist Party of America, would be contending seriously for the Democratic nomination for president would have been ludicrous. When did it become acceptable for Americans to back an avowed socialist? What changed in America, and why did it change?

During the Cold War, Americans could look out into the world and see the logical end result of fully consistent socialism.

There is no question that something has changed. In 1982, when Sanders was midway through the first of three terms as the Independent Socialist mayor of his adopted Vermont city of Burlington, 72 percent of Americans told the Continental Group they thought the United States would be worse off if it moved toward socialism. In 2009, three years after Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate, that number had still drifted down only slightly. As President Barack Obama took office, 65 percent of Americans, as measured by a Fox News Poll, said it would be a bad thing if the United States were to move toward socialism.

Since then, the opposition to socialism in America has drifted downward. Gallup asked in 2010 if people had a positive or negative view of socialism and found that 58 percent had a negative view while 36 percent had a positive view. In 2012, the numbers continued to shift: Gallup found that 54 percent of those polled had a negative image of socialism, while 39 percent had a positive image. And in a 2015 poll, YouGov found that just 51 percent have an unfavorable view of socialism and 35 percent have a favorable view. The rest were not sure.

Young Americans are more open to the ideas, or at least the label, of socialism than their Baby Boomer parents, according to YouGov. When asked to express their views in favor of socialism compared with capitalism, those polled over the age of 65 were emphatically in favor of the latter; 59 percent favored capitalism, while just 15 percent favored socialism. But attitudes among those younger than 30 were identical given the margin of error—39 percent in favor of capitalism, and 36 percent in favor of socialism. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center following the Occupy Wall Street protest found even more favorable sentiments among the young, with 49 percent of those polled ages 18–29 seeing socialism in a positive light, and just 43 percent viewing it negatively. The same poll found that 72 percent of Americans age 65 and older viewed socialism as a negative, with just 13 percent saying they viewed it positively.

This is the fundament from which Sanders’s success has sprung: In a poll taken in the summer of 2015, Gallup found that while 47 percent of Americans overall said they’d be willing to vote for a socialist for president, 69 percent of those ages 18–29 said they would—just six points fewer than those who said they’d be willing to vote for an evangelical Christian. In Iowa, this phenomenon paid dividends: Entrance polls showed that 84 percent of Democratic voters ages 18–29 voted for Sanders. By comparison, Barack Obama won 57 percent of those young Iowa voters when he shocked the Clinton campaign in 2008.


ocialism has always been a philosophy on the fringe of American politics, but in the years between the First and Second World Wars it was considered a respectable element of the ideological left. With the coming of the Cold War, that ceased to be the case. During the Cold War, Americans could look out into the world and see the logical end result of fully consistent socialism. It wasn’t just the military threat from the Soviets or the gulags and secret police. It was also the ever-present specific economic examples of how terrible life was under their model. Expressions of liberal sentiment in Hungary led to Soviet occupation in 1956. It was lost on no one that in 1961 East Germany had to build a wall in Berlin to keep the population of its half of the city captive. When Czech Communists rose in 1968 with the explicit desire of creating “socialism with a human face,” the tanks from the East rolled in and made it clear the only face would be Big Brother’s. The suppression of dissident writers and artists in all these countries was well-known, as were the desperate attempts at defection by leading musicians, performers, and athletes whenever they were permitted to travel abroad.

Even so, throughout the Cold War, socialism retained a significant cultural foothold in the United States. Yes, explicit socialism was something that became largely unacceptable for most Americans given the context of the Cold War. It always remained acceptable, however, in the cultural industries that disseminate ideological context to the rest of America—foremost the academy, but also a credulous news media and an entertainment industry always hungering after fashion and significance. Every few years the rise of a socialist leader or regime would be greeted with favor and optimism, from Tito in Yugoslavia to Mao in China to Castro in Cuba to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Each of these cases was challenged in the court of public opinion by masses of evidence about the repressive totalitarianism they were imposing, often with the help of the Soviet Union. This very public back-and-forth ensured that whatever the fashionable qualities socialism might have possessed, it would remain a fringe element of mainstream American politics. But it was always there, hiding in the background, frozen in cryogenic suspension, biding its time until the generations that lived through the Cold War began to be supplanted by the generations that had not.

The Berlin Wall was taken down more than a quarter-century ago, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. For Americans today, the visible and unmistakable connection between socialism and totalitarianism has faded dramatically. Though actual, real-life models of socialism do exist today—in the still-standing Castro regime and in Venezuela primarily—people aren’t paying much attention. For America’s young, socialism’s definition isn’t to be found in the desperate, sad reality of peoples held captive by regimes that proudly declare themselves socialist. It’s more of a vague ideal whose concrete meaning isn’t real to people. This makes it easier for someone like Sanders to say that socialism just means middle-class entitlements such as Social Security, which everyone loves. The global examples that say different are out there, but not as obvious.
Mainstream cultural institutions don’t bother telling young people what’s happening in Venezuela, nor did they explore in any serious way the viciously repressive aspects of the Cuban socialist regime when Barack Obama proudly declared an end to the embargo against it last year.

Americans born in the mid-1970s or later did not enter adulthood with any profound fear of Communism or nuclear war. Nearly 60 percent of the American population alive today was born in 1975 or later. They have no memory of an association between the principles of socialism and the existential threat of Communism. The link between the two, always a drag on the success of explicitly socialist ideas in our domestic politics, is totally severed. Since the mid-1990s, they have been happy to don CCCP hockey jerseys and Che T-shirts, with no sense of the darker side of what their garb entails.

It’s not just that the link between socialism and its dark political expression has been split by the passage of time, though. It has had help from those who have been waiting for these discredited ideas to make a comeback. The return of socialism has been significantly aided by the academy, where groups of elite-left teachers and bureaucrats of Sanders’s generation who never soured on the ideology have raised up a Millennial generation with no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by the real-world workings of the ideology.

Since the Cold War, the academy has moved left in a dramatic fashion. A recent study by the Hoover Institution’s Samuel J. Abrams details how skewed party and ideological affiliation have become in universities. Abrams depicts the current state of academia as having left-to-right ratios of 11 to 1. The campus is a place where the capitalists have been fully driven out by an ideologically monolithic group sympathetic to the ideas Sanders espouses. Indeed, a key part of Sanders’s appeal is his promise of a free college education for all—and for a generation burdened by student debt from institutions that served them poorly, this sounds like a very good idea indeed.

America handed its children over to an elite-left higher-education cohort that happily provided the indoctrination young minds are ready to accept. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. But in the case of socialism, for many Millennials it came at enough of a remove from the knowledge of the Cold War that they were putty in the hands of the evangelists in the academy. The financial meltdown of 2008 was an enormous gift for the socialists. A crisis of this size and scope—even one that was in reality caused largely by government housing policies encouraging increasingly risky subprime loans—provided an opportunity to criticize the existing capitalist system as inherently corrupt, greedy, and evil.

Republicans since John McCain in 2008 have been describing President Obama’s domestic program as socialist, and it appears that in so doing, they have made the term seem more palatable and less extreme merely by repetition.

It is no accident that Bernie Sanders’s campaign is supported by many veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and several of its founders have launched websites and money bombs to support him. He is, in a way, the electoral-politics extension of that disorganized in-gathering. He’s Occupy but with a smartphone donation app.

The return of socialism is also another manifestation of the ideological sorting of the parties. As long as there were significant numbers of conservatives in the Democratic Party, the ideological extremes to which they might have gravitated were kept in check. But we live in a time when the party’s Scoop Jackson wing would barely be identifiable in a historical-U.S. trivia contest. As a result, there is no natural constituency for an anti-socialist Democrat. Indeed, a significant number of Democrats believe that ObamaCare failed because the program still relies on private insurers and does not feature a single-payer system. They are pining for nothing less than the socialist nationalization of the health-care industry. Sanders calls this “Medicare for All,” and it’s a mark of how far his party has moved that he can gain traction by proposing measures that never would have been considered in the Bill Clinton era.

It is the failure of Barack Obama’s domestic-policy program generally that we have to thank for socialism’s rise in 2016. Republicans since John McCain in 2008 have been describing President Obama’s domestic program as socialist, and it appears that in so doing, they have made the term seem more palatable and less extreme merely by repetition. The takeaway for today’s younger voters seems to be: If everything Obama is trying to do is socialism, and Republicans are just blocking it time and again, then perhaps we need to go full socialist to actually get things done. By applying an unpopular label to a relatively popular agenda, Republicans may have unintentionally aided the work of a thousand left-wing professors in a thousand state colleges.

For Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, this presents a significant challenge, and not just in the immediate political sense. The Democratic Party has increasingly adopted a corporatist stance toward interaction with market players, avoiding the kind of anti-cronyist, anti-institutional populism of the policy prescriptions favored by Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Sanders-led criticism of Clinton is that she is a creature of the ruling class, a servant of Wall Street, someone who cannot be trusted and who seeks only power. For such critics, her deployment of “war on women” tropes is just a smokescreen for an agenda that offers little change in the areas they care most about. Should Clinton become the nominee, these frustrations for the socialist left are not going away, and a politician with potentially broader appeal than Sanders could seize upon them.

The rise of socialism—real socialism—is a challenge for the Republican Party, too. As a political phenomenon, Sanders is best understood as the other side of the coin of Donald J. Trump’s presence in the Republican field. The arguments advanced by and to disaffected and frustrated white Americans from Trump and Sanders are strikingly similar, when you get past the extreme differences in accent and manner. Sanders opposed immigration reform in 2007 and criticized its guest-worker measures for undermining wages. He has repeatedly stressed that American immigration policy should put American workers first. Indeed, no less an immigration hardliner than Iowa Republican Representative Steve King told a radio station last summer that “I admire Bernie’s passion, and I notice that his immigration position is closer to mine than it is some of the presidential candidates on the Republican side.”

Sanders believes he has the ability to expand his support beyond his current base of young Americans and appeal to the working-class voters who seem to back Trump and lean Republican only in the weakest of ways. He might not be wrong. For decades, Republicans have publicly branded themselves as conservatives while governing as corporatist mercantilists uninterested in the populist pleas of their supporters. It is true that those pleas have often been wrongheaded and at odds with laissez-faire capitalism; many Americans today seem to want to hear someone tell them that this treadmill of globalization and uncertainty will stop with a wave of his hand. No one can do this, of course. But a great many people want to hear it, and Trump and Sanders are willing to say it.

The United States government is in crisis; it is distrusted at home and disrespected abroad, and it no longer serves the priorities of the people. This opens the door for populist appeals to power from the left and the right. “The economy is not fair, the system is skewed, elites in Washington and on Wall Street are rigging the rules to pull ahead from the rest of us” is the sort of thing you will hear from Trump and Sanders supporters alike. But since the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties have failed to offer a satisfactory response to that objection, the false promises of socialism and nationalism are finding a new hearing from an American electorate that has forgotten the lessons of the past.

The United States learned all the darkest truths about socialism in the 20th century. The question is whether we can remember those lessons in time, or whether we’re going to have to learn them all over again, the hard way—by repeating the errors of socialism here.

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