Again, Bernie Sanders has run for president of the United States as he thinks it should be, not as it is. In 2040, we might look back and say that his greatest contribution to American political culture was, for better or for worse, to open the Overton window to the word “socialism.” In 2020, the word hurts him more than it helps, but reactions to it split along generational lines, and time may be on its side. Not enough time, though, in a mere campaign season or two, to make much difference for Sanders.
Whatever Americans think that socialism is, they disapprove of it, 59 percent to 39 percent, according to Gallup in October. Two years ago, 38 percent told Gallup that “we have socialism in the United States today.” Presumably some of them thought that it was bad while others thought that it was good and that we should have more of it. Only 17 percent said that socialism means government ownership of the means of production. A couple of weeks ago, Gallup released a poll in which 45 percent said they’d be willing to vote for a socialist.
What Millennials tend to mean by “socialism” — progressive taxes, social-welfare entitlements — is different from the images that the word conjures in the minds of older voters who have some memory of the Cold War and are most of the electorate. Sanders and his supporters shake their heads at critics who seem to think that an increase in taxpayer-funded health care would be the first stop on a road to reeducation camps and the gulag. The critics would be less likely to think that if Sanders and his supporters didn’t call their policy wish list “socialism.”
Many Democrats, perhaps most, who want to win in November resent Sanders for, as they see it, using their party’s national campaign as a platform on which to play a longer game than the schedule permits. He and his base may like to think they’re the future of the party. Their problem is that most voters live in the here and now.
The Sanders campaign drags us into semantic arguments. Is Sanders a socialist? Is he a “democratic socialist”? Is there a difference? Maybe the more accurate label for him is “social democrat”? What’s a social democrat? How should we label the Scandinavian countries that he’s wont to cite as examples of what he has in mind?
An unstated premise of the national seminar that he’s inspired has been that only a clod would confuse Sanders socialism with Soviet Communism, never mind his past expressions of admiration for the USSR, which, the New York Times now reports, “spotted opportunity” in him. In both his record and his rhetoric he affirms the conflation, of socialism and authoritarian Communism, that many younger socialists spend so much energy trying to dispel. He makes an awkward figurehead for their cause.
As if to aggravate the problem, two weeks ago he went on 60 Minutes and defended Fidel Castro. No doubt his comments were more warmly received in Oberlin than in South Florida. Here’s Andrew Gillum, the leading light of the left wing of the Florida Democratic Party (he was its gubernatorial nominee in 2018), in an interview with David Axelrod:
One Colombian-American state senator, a Democrat, put it this way. She said, “Listening to Sanders talk about, or romanticize, or give credit to the Castro regime because of a literacy reading program is like listening to Donald Trump after Charlottesville say there were good people on both sides.” That’s how deep this hits in those communities.
Sanders subsequently doubled down on his Castro talk. Who needs Florida?
Last time, in 2016, he lost it to Clinton in a rout. The split was two to one. Of Florida’s 67 counties, he carried nine, concentrated in the northernmost end of the state; three were in the Panhandle. The county where Clinton beat him hardest was the state’s largest, Miami-Dade, where the split was three to one — no surprise, given the clash of two hard facts: Sanders brands himself a socialist, and much of the population in South Florida either has fled from, or has family who have fled from, Latin American countries where “socialism” has come to mean gun violence and empty supermarket shelves.
His apologia for Castro amounts almost to a formal forfeit of the Florida Democratic primary on March 17. Democratic congresswoman Stephanie Murphy said that Sanders “has consistently taken positions that are wrong on the merits and will alienate many Florida voters.” Representative Donna Shalala, whose district covers much of Miami-Dade, issued this statement:
Senator Sanders’ comments on the Castro regime are misguided, ill-informed, and unacceptable. Over the last six decades, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have risked their lives to escape the tyranny of the Castro regime — a reign of fear, paranoia, and oppression that regularly abuses human rights in order to stifle free thought and democracy in Cuba to this very day.
I believe Senator Sanders would benefit from taking time to meet with the many survivors of Castro’s Cuba who now live in South Florida. My hope is that after meeting with the exile community, he will recognize that the Cuban regime — and other similar authoritarian regimes across Latin America — are instruments of evil and are not worthy of his praise.
Under the headline “Florida Democrats Stand in Solidarity with People Fleeing Dictatorships,” the Florida Democratic Party issued a statement that reads in part:
Florida Democrats condemn dictators who toppled democracies across the globe and stand in solidarity with the thousands of people who have fled violent dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Candidates need to understand our immigrant communities’ shared stories, as well as provide solutions to issues that matter to all Floridians.
Florida would be out of Sanders’s reach in a general election, too. It’s not the only reason that Democrats nationwide appear ready to deny him the nomination. It’s not even the main reason. But it’s a near-perfect illustration of the main reason.