The Generational Misunderstanding of Socialism


DES MOINES, Iowa - Bernie Sanders has branded himself as a Democratic Socialist, a term that, to older generations, is viewed in a very negative light even though younger generations are more open to the idea.

"When I think of Socialism I don't think it would be good for this country," said Jacob Handsaker, 33, a farmer from Radcliff Iowa. "I don't think a pure socialistic society would be viewed in a positive light."

Mack Shelley, chair of the political science department at Iowa State University, explained the fundamental reason why older generations view the term in such a bad light.

"At least two generations grew up with a phobia about the Soviet Union and that carries baggage with it, it's hard to shake that out of their head," he said. "Even though the Cold War has been over for quite a while I don't think those ideas die out very quickly.

"For people who people who find one or both of those concepts scary it's kind of easy for them to jump from the label socialist to assume it means some form of Communism," he said. "Then trying to distinguish those two gets sort of complicated."

Younger generations didn't grow up with a fear of Socialism like older generations did.

"We've been out of the cold war since 1992 and we've had a lot of folks born since then who are barely entering the age where they can become politically active," Shelley said. "I don't think they have any reason to fear anything."

Sean Brown, a junior at Iowa State University, thinks our current capitalistic system is scarier than Socialism.

"I'm actually more scared of the term Capitalism," he said. "I don't think Capitalism is a really sustainable thing for the future. I think we need to lean more towards a socialistic tax system, like taxing the top one percent."

Sanders' Democratic-Socialism is different from what many older generations consider to be Socialism.

"It's different from the interpretation people have when they think about Socialism in, say, China or in what used to be called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Shelley said. "In the USSR the term Socialism was kind of a loose way of referring to Communism."

The Democratic-Socialism approach Sanders is using has been resonating with many voters - he's nearly tied with Hillary Clinton in the latest Iowa polls. In fact, a new Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll found that 43 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers would consider themselves to be a socialist.

This explosion in Democratic-Socialist support might be a result of current programs we already have in place.

"It's not that dissimilar from things we do already," Shelley said. "You could argue that a lot of welfare programs go along socialist lines."

With that many Democratic caucus-goers considering themselves as socialist, Sanders' campaign might not be hurt too much from being branded as a socialist.

"I think the Sanders campaign staffers have gone out of their way to say that they're not in favor of government ownership of specific industries so much," Shelley said. "They're more in favor of stronger regulation and trying to make sure that the private sector works in the benefit of everybody, not just for a handful of a few wealthy folks."

It might take some time before Americans are ready to elect a Democratic-Socialist into office though.

"It's going to take a while for people to accept Socialism," Brown said. "We're still kind of stuck in the capitalist idea that anyone can take as much of the pie as they want."