The predictions of everyone claiming any expertise were unanimous that Bernie Sanders would never be a viable Presidential candidate because as soon as the fact that he is a socialist sinks in, his standing in the polls will plummet into oblivion. Trump, to accelerate this expectation, has been referring to the senator not only as a socialist but also as a communist.
All were wrong, obviously. Sanders’ numbers have continue to improve. The revelation of Sanders’ economic philosophy, even with Trump’s help, is having little effect. The outcome is far from certain, but the senator from Vermont who proclaims himself to be a democratic socialist is clearly a viable candidate. What happened here? How did the predictors miss the mark by so much? As is readily apparent, the labels of socialism, or even communism, no longer appear to strike fear in the heart of the mainstream voter. The increasing reaction to such labels is a mild shrug and casual “meh!” A brief look at history reveals what has probably happened.
Everyone of age at after the end of World War II, and continuing into the 1980s, lived in the shadow of the former Soviet Union, the bastion of what was called international communism and the dedicated enemy of the free world. Although Joseph Stalin had been an ally by necessity in the war, he was considered by the western powers only slightly preferable to Adolf Hitler. After Germany surrendered, Winston Churchill even advocated that the western allies preemptively invade Russia to depose Stalin for good. Instead, a Cold War resulted that lasted for close to 40 years. One brutal Soviet dictator followed another as our nation endured Korea and then Viet Nam, all the while believing we were at risk for immediate nuclear annihilation. Because of the dreadful circumstances of all of this, the term “communist” with all its variations, and to some extent the term “socialist” with all its variations, acquired the same pejorative connotation as the term “Nazi” had earned during the war.
It used to be that to call someone a “communist” anywhere, or a “socialist” in those regions which did not carefully distinguish the meaning of such terms, was to accuse the individual of treachery, high treason, incitement to overthrow the government, conspiracy to murder and perhaps grand theft – all rolled into one word. Even though the actual meaning of the words pertain to benign economic theories, and even though the economic theories were of no relevance to the cruelty of the totalitarian Soviet regime, nevertheless the words became powerful insults capable, often unfairly, of wrecking the reputations and destroying the dreams of many. Branding anyone as such, and making it stick, was considered the ultimate disenfranchisement one could impose upon a political opponent.
Time passed. Suddenly, in the mid-1980s, the Evil Empire crumbled and the Cold War ended. The fear of mutual nuclear annihilation dissipated. As one generation passed on to be replaced by another, the electorate began to fill up with voters who came of age after the Cold War ended. With the imperialistic Soviet Union no longer, and the fear of nuclear attack evaporating, the provocative nuances of the terms “communist” and “socialist” began to dissipate. Furthermore, the United States economy, which had been edging away from capitalism since the beginning of the century, had, in the post-war years, turned into a true amalgam of socialistic and capitalistic mechanisms. The distinctions between democratic socialism and regulated capitalism became differences being of degree in application rather than of philosophy.
With this background in mind, we come to the present day. For the first time, with the elections of 2016, a majority of the electorate will belong to generations born after 1960 and coming of age after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. To these individuals, the attempts by Trump and others to slur Sanders by reference to his economic philosophy provoke only blank stares. The pejorative connotations of calling one a “socialist,” or even a “communist,” simply no longer apply. If anyone is curious, and looks the terms up, all that will be found are the definitions of benign utopian philosophies.
Today, anyone in the category of a grandson listening to his sage grandfather try to explain socialism as a disabling factor in modern politics would simply roll their eyes.
The times they are a changing.