Why Democrats shouldn't be afraid to talk about socialism

Polls suggest it could be the key to their 2020 chances

At a packed rally in New Hampshire last week, Donald Trump did not shy away from boasting about his prospects in the 2020 reelection. "You have no choice but to vote for me," the president proclaimed to the crowd. After all, he said, "we have a group of socialists and communists to beat" — referring to the crowded Democratic presidential field. "We will never, ever be a socialist nation," Trump confidently added.

Trump's line of thinking is hardly unique. Ever since the election of self-avowed democratic socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Talib to Congress last year, Republicans and Democrats alike have gone into a red-baiting fervor. The conventional wisdom — pushed not only by Trump but by establishment Democratic think tanks, presidential candidates, and even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — is that socialism is so unpopular, even with Democrats, that it will torpedo any campaign tarnished with the dreaded s-word.

The problem is, that may not be true. In fact, according to new polling, it's quite the opposite. If Democrats want to win control of Washington in 2020, running on socialism may provide just the answer.

Tucked in a July poll taken by The Economist and the polling firm YouGov was a simple question: "Do you have a favorable or an unfavorable view of socialism?" The response from Democratic voters was resounding: 52 percent had a favorable view of socialism, compared to only 29 percent with an unfavorable view. Moreover, even when the question was framed in terms of moving away from capitalism and towards socialism, Democrats' favorability to socialism was a net positive, by a margin of 23 points.

This was no fluke — a Fox News poll taken a few days later showed nearly the exact same findings. And polling going back years has validated a clear trend: far from fearing socialism, Democratic voters are hungry for more of it.

While this certainly challenges the notion that socialists are but a marginal group within the Democratic Party, it alone does not address centrists' chief concern: that socialism is a losing vision in a general election.

It is true that, on the surface, moderates, independents, and Republicans take an unfavorable view of socialism. But those attitudes are not as locked in as many politicians would lead us to believe. According to The Economist's poll, more moderates are unsure about whether the U.S. should move towards socialism and away from capitalism (44 percent) than those who think that would be an unequivocally "bad thing" (39 percent). For independents, the numbers are nearly equal (40 percent and 41 percent, respectively).

This uncertainty likely stems from ignorance: when asked what, of a list of options, comes closest to their idea of socialism, a plurality of moderates and independents surveyed chose "not sure." That's in contrast with Democratic voters, whose support for socialism is mirrored by their identification of it with a large welfare state (30 percent) or an economic system where most property is collectively owned (23 percent) — the same definitions given by socialism's most high-profile proponents.

These survey results indicate that, far from scaring them off, the more voters know about socialism, the more likely they are to support it.

And this is exactly what socialist politicians are arguing. In response to tweets from Trump warning of Democrats' socialism, Ocasio-Cortez responded that "[the president is] scared…He knows that he's losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the substantive proposals that we're advancing to the public." That same sentiment is shared by Bernie Sanders, who responded to critics of his major speech on democratic socialism: "We have to talk about democratic socialism as an alternative to unfettered capitalism, where the rich get richer and almost everybody else is getting poorer. I think that's a message that young people are receptive to, and I think it's a message that working people are receptive to."

The idea is that socialist evangelizing won't only convert skeptical voters. It'll also bring back Democrats who stayed home in 2016. One fascinating finding from recent polling is that a clear plurality — if not outright majority — of 2016 Hilary Clinton voters preferred America move away from capitalism and towards socialism. This flies in the face of Clinton's pitch to voters as someone who sought to "save capitalism from itself," rather than — like her primary opponent Sanders — abandon that economic system all together.

While Trump suggests that running on socialism will cause Democrats to lose in 2020, research indicates that the opposite was true in 2016: had Clinton leaned into socialist policies, she may have turned out some of the many Democrats and progressives who stayed at home on Election Day, costing her several swing states by razor-thin margins. In particular, this includes a large share of young, black progressives — demographics with some of the highest favorability of socialism. Even Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA — far from Marxist propagandists — concluded that a populist economic message would be key to getting this vital group out to the polls.

It's understandable that so many Democratic leaders are engaged in fearmongering about socialism. Some are the products of an older generation still living in the shadow of the Cold War and left-wing candidate George McGovern's 1972 loss to (an incredibly popular at the time) Richard Nixon. Others take Republican glee at socialist proposals too literally, failing to remember that 55 percent of voters thought Barack Obama was a socialist before he was re-elected in a landslide. And of course there are the anti-socialist ideologues in both parties who, powered by corporate donors, are desperate at all costs to keep an agenda of economic redistribution at bay.

No matter the specific reason, the data shows that too many Democrats are fundamentally misunderstanding voters' view of socialism. If the party wants to have any hope of holding the House and winning the Senate and White House in 2020, they need to follow the lead of Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and state and local politicians across the country: talk more about socialism. Voters like what they hear.


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