Bernie Sanders is leading the charge to mainstream democratic socialism in the 2020 Democratic race. But some of his opponents want to distance themselves from the label.
Sanders has been talking about democratic socialism for decades, but the ideology has seemingly gained more traction—particularly among younger voters—since the Senator’s 2016 run for president.
As the movement continues to grow, the Vermont Senator recently gave a speech about democratic socialism at George Washington University. Sanders defined the ideology as a matter of economic rights. “Today in the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion,” he said.
“In other words, the issue of unfettered capitalism is not just an academic debate, poverty, economic distress and despair are life-threatening issues for millions of working people in the country,” the senator told the crowd, while arguing that democratic socialism is about economic freedom for all people.
Since his last campaign, Sanders’s political movement and democratic socialism have become more popular among some Americans, as activists and representatives are increasingly identifying with the ideology. But it has also created a dividing line within the party.
Will socialism come up in the Democratic debates?
Sanders has openly labeled himself a socialist, while backing policies that are also deemed as such. Other Democrats are rallying behind similar ideas, just without embracing the terminology.
At least four 2020 candidates—Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—signed onto Sanders’s Medicare-for-all legislation, a campaign that has been championed by the Democratic Socialists of America. The organization boasts more than 55,000 members nationwide.
Still, these Democrats don’t want to be labeled as socialists, but the ideology is popular enough among some Democratic voters to become an important point of debate this election cycle. A 2018 Gallup poll found that most Democrats had a positive view of socialism, while less than half of young Americans between ages 18 to 29 had a positive view of capitalism.
Christine Riddiough, Chair of the DSA’s National Political Committee told Fortune democratic socialism has become popular to younger voters because they “see very few opportunities for themselves. If they get to go to college, they leave with mountains of debt; if they don’t get to go, they’re stuck in low-paying generally menial jobs with no future.” According to Riddiough, “Socialism offers an alternative with some hope.”
Sanders is currently the only 2020 candidate to embrace democratic socialism and he’s doing it in a big way. The senator said his policies aren’t even that “radical,” he just wants to “make sure everyone appreciates why economic rights are human rights.”
The Sanders campaign could not be reached for comment for this story.
Democrats don’t want to be called socialists
Some lower-polling candidates have been outspoken about the Democratic Party not embracing socialism. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper who is running against Sanders told the audience at an event for the California Democratic Party earlier this month that “Socialism is not the answer.”
He added, “If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up reelecting the worst president in American history.” Hickenlooper was booed by some attendees. He will join Sanders on stage during Thursday night’s debate.
Others, like Warren, Booker, and Harris have shied away from the label while supporting more progressive, and even socialist, policies. Warren has maintained over the years that she is a capitalist, even while putting out some of the most progressive economic policy platforms. But the Massachusetts Senator won’t criticize socialists outright, likely so as not to isolate an important and growing base of the Democratic Party.
But the party is still pushing back, partly because they see Republicans warning that socialism is dangerous.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier has continuously rejected the ideology. She argued in an interview with “60 Minutes” that Democratic lawmakers “know that we have to hold the center.” She added that if people in her party support socialism, “that’s their view. That is not the view of the Democratic Party.”
More recently, Jon Cowan, president of the centrist think tank Third Way told Time that the debate around democratic socialism has created a dividing line within the party. Democratic strategists, activists, union leaders, and members of Congress met in South Carolina last week for a strategy session following Sanders’s speech.
Some party members fear that embracing democratic socialism would isolate independent voters, swing voters, and Republicans who are dissatisfied with President Trump.
Can socialism win in 2020?
Democratic socialists are building a movement that’s reported wins at every level of government.
At least 46 democratic socialists running in the 2018 midterms won their primaries, while others were elected to public office in various local jurisdictions. Three democratic socialists won aldermanic wards in Chicago’s elections earlier this year, and most recently Tiffany Cabán ran a successful primary campaign for Queens District Attorney in New York.
While some centrist Democrats continue to distance themselves from democratic socialists, the party’s further left base sees an opportunity to keep winning in 2020.
“Red scare tactics won’t work the way they did in the 1950s,” Riddiough said. “The real menace now is not communism but the rise of totalitarianism. Democratic socialism offers real solutions to the problems facing us.”
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