Originally published in The American Prospect
Now that Bernie Sanders is rapidly climbing in the polls and attracting huge audiences to his campaign events (including over 10,000 people at a Madison, Wisconsin rally the other day), his opponents are starting to attack him for being too radical. After all, Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist.
Of course, few Americans know what "socialist" means. Some mistakenly associate it with Communism. In fact, Sanders has often said that he supports the kind of policies favored by the Scandinavian democracies.
Asked about this in May by George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC News' This Week, Sanders said:
In countries in Scandinavia like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries. Voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. In those countries, health care is the right of all people; college education and graduate school is free; retirement benefits, child care are stronger than the United States of America. In those countries by and large government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, many voters appear to be willing to look past the labels and listen to what Sanders is actually saying about the issues and the role of government in society. The Vermont Senator with a New York accent has a straight-talking style that resonates with many voters who don't necessarily identify themselves as liberals or progressives, much less as socialists.
For example, at a recent Sanders rally in New Hampshire that attracted an unexpectedly large crowd, Sanders "railed against the 'billionaire class' and pledged to make large corporations pay their fair share of taxes if he becomes president. But much of his message focused on improving the lot of the lower and middle classes--by providing free college; guaranteeing workers vacation time, sick leave and family leave; and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour," the Washington Post reported.
"I don't believe it is a terribly radical idea to say that someone who works 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty," Sanders told the standing-room-only audience.
The Gallup Poll has regularly asked Americans what types of candidates they would willingly elect. Gallup's question is quite simple: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be _____, would you vote for that person?"
Over the years, Gallup found significant increases in the proportion of Americans who say "yes" to voting for a woman, an African American, a Jew, a Catholic, and a gay or lesbian candidate.
Although socialists have run for president, and been elected to various public offices from city council to Congress since the early 1900s, Gallup didn't add that category of candidate to the list until this June, no doubt in recognition of Sanders' campaign. It found that 47 percent of Americans say they would vote for a socialist for president and 50 percent say they would not. In the poll, 59 percent of Democrats, 49 percent of independents, and, perhaps surprisingly, 26 percent of Republicans report that they'd vote to put a socialist in the White House.
After more than half a century of Cold War hysteria and post-Cold War propaganda against socialism from the business and education establishments, the mainstream media, and both political parties, the fact that almost half of Americans are willing to vote for a socialist for president is quite remarkable.
Not surprisingly, those who came of age in the Cold War era are less likely to consider voting for a socialist candidate. Gallup found that 34 percent of those 65 and older, 37 percent of 50-64 year olds, and 50 percent of 30-49 year olds would vote for a socialist. In contrast, 69 percent of 18-29 year olds indicated that they'd vote for a socialist for the nation's highest office-holder. Chalk that up to either youthful idealism or to a profound shift in the young generation's political outlook that could have a lasting influence as they get older.
Political scientists, pollsters, journalists, and pundits like to identify voters and politicians with labels. But voters care less about labels -- conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, socialist, or others. They are more interested in what politicians want government to do. Ideas that were once considered radical -- such as the vote for women, Social Security, and the minimum wage -- are today taken for granted as common sense.
So let's look instead at what Americans actually believe and care about.
Polls show that Americans are upset with widening inequality, the political influence of big business, and declining living standards. Public opinion is generally favorable toward greater government activism to address poverty, inequality, opportunity, and climate change.
Most Americans worry that government has been captured by the powerful and wealthy. They want a government that serves the common good. They also want to reform government to make it more responsive and accountable.
On those matters--both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions--Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans.
- About three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans--including 84 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans--believe that corporations have too much influence on American life and politics today, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. In contrast, only 37 percent think that labor unions exercise too much influence.
- The Pew Research Center discovered that 60 percent of Americans--including 75 percent of Democrats--believe that "the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy."
- Fifty-eight percent of Americans say they would support breaking up "big banks like Citigroup," a key plank of Sanders' platform and the goal of a bill that Sanders sponsored in the Senate.
- Seventy-three percent of Americans favor tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies, versus 17 percent who oppose stronger regulation.
- Sixty-four percent of Americans strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars and requiring utilities to generate more power from "clean" low-carbon sources.
- More than three-quarters of Americans (79 percent) think that wealthy people don't pay their fair share of taxes, while 82 percent believe that some corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes.
- Sixty-eight percent of Americans favor raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year, including 87 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Republicans.
- A strong majority (66 percent) say that wealth should be more evenly divided and that it is a problem that should be addressed urgently.
- Ninety-two percent of Americans want a society with far less income disparity than currently exists in the United States. Americans prefer some inequality to perfect equality, according to the professors at the Harvard Business School and Duke University who conducted the survey. But when asked to pick an ideal level of income disparity, Americans prefer the more egalitarian level similar to the one in Sweden (although without identifying the country by name) to that in the U.S. What's more, the rich and the poor, and Democrats and Republicans, are almost equally likely to choose the Swedish model. For example, 93.5 percent of Democrats and 90.2 percent of Republicans preferred the level of income distribution that exists in Sweden.
- Sixty-nine percent of Americans--including 90 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Republicans--believe that the government should help reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. Eighty-two percent of Americans--including 94 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents, and 64 percent of Republicans--think the government should help reduce poverty.
- Seventy-eight percent of Americans think that campaign spending by outside groups not affiliated with candidates should be limited by law.
- A majority of Americans (54 percent) believe that money given to political candidates is not a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In other words, they disagree with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.
- A recent poll by Hart Research Associates found that 75 percent of Americans (including 53 percent of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 an hour by 2020. Sixty-three percent of Americans support an even greater increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
- A significant majority of Americans support the right of workers to unionize, despite several decades of corporate-sponsored anti-union propaganda. Eighty-two percent believe that factory and manufacturing workers should have the right to unionize. A vast majority also support the right to unionize for transportation workers (74 percent), police and firefighters (72 percent), public school teachers (71 percent), workers in supermarkets and retail sales (68 percent), and fast food workers (62 percent).
- Seventy-one percent Americans support a public option, which would give individuals the choice of buying healthcare through Medicare or private insurers. This was part of Obama's original health care plan in 2010 but the insurance industry lobby killed it, thanks to every Senate Republican and a handful of Senate Democrats, led by former Senator Max Baucus of Montana.
- The Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans want to lift the income cap on Social Security to require higher-income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all of their wages. Most people don't realize that workers who earn more than $118,500 a year don't contribute on their full income and that simply removing that tax loophole for high earners would close the lion's share of Social Security's modest long-term funding gap. Legislation introduced by Senator Sanders and Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon would apply the same payroll tax already paid by more than nine out of 10 Americans to those with incomes over $250,000 a year. Census Bureau data shows that only about 5 percent (1 in 18) of workers would pay more if the cap were scrapped, and only the top 1.4 percent (one in 71 workers) would be affected if the tax were applied to earnings over $250,000.
- More than three-quarters (79 percent) of Americans think that education beyond high school is not affordable for everyone in the U.S. who needs it. Seventy-seven percent believe that higher education institutions should reduce tuition and fees, while 59 percent and 55 percent respectively agree that state governments and the federal government should provide more assistance. The average tuition bill for students at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades. More than one-third (35 percent) of 2000-2014 college graduates report graduating with more than $25,000 in undergraduate student loan debt, in inflation-adjusted dollars. The recently graduated college class of 2015 has an average debt burden of $35,051 per student, the highest ever. Sanders introduced legislation to make four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free, paid for through a tax on Wall Street transactions.
- Today, 60 percent of Americans believe it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, according to Gallup, a figure that is likely to increase following the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. But in 1996, only 27 percent felt that way. That year, then-Congressman Sanders was one of only 67 House members to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of gay marriages.
But public opinion, on its own, doesn't translate into public policy. It has to be mobilized. That's what movements do. And that's what elections are for.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, published by Nation Books.