In a recent article with two equally annoying headlines, Fredrik deBoer wanted readers of the New York Times to know, socialism actually isn’t that popular. One headline said as much, “My Fellow Socialists, We Aren’t Actually That Popular” the other headline once you click into the article, “Democratic Socialists Need to Take a Hard Look in the Mirror.” Both act as though socialism is weak, unpopular, and anemic, which in my estimation couldn’t be further from the truth.
The article is premised largely on the dual losses of India Walton and Bernie Sanders, both going to show that the left is actually unpopular, and socialists who pin those losses on the Democratic Party consolidating against the left, do so to an unfair degree which obscures the fact of their unpopularity. In my view the article unfairly attributes a starry-eyed view to many socialists, that once the Democratic Party is done away with, or defeated, socialism will follow. I don’t think anyone serious on the left views the project as easy or one that will be accomplished over night.
The argument is premised on the fact that the left supposedly overlooks the unpopularity of their beliefs and justifies the losses as simply premised on being stymied by the Democratic Party. The proof that these views are unpopular? Simply the fact that they have failed to win a few elections (exactly three were discussed in the article, Bernie’s two primary runs and India Walton’s election). And it’s unfortunate because in my view, a few lost elections does not make for an unpopular set of principles. In fact looking at “socialist” policy proposals singularly, socialism looks pretty popular.
Socialism is Actually Pretty Popular
Take for example Medicare for All, which consistently polls well with majorities of Americans favoring the policy. A 2020 Hill/Harris X poll found that 69% of Americans supported Medicare for All. It’s not just Medicare for All, the Green New Deal is also broadly popular. A 2019 Data for Progress poll found that 59% of voters supported the Green New Deal. And basically every other policy proposal the left champions from paid family leave to spending less money on the military is broadly popular. Even though the term socialism is becoming more popular, it’s still below water with older voters, but it’s getting there. However people may feel about socialism in the abstract, the policy proposals and principles that the movement champions are broadly popular.
It’s also worth taking stock of where the socialist movement is today versus just a few years ago. Before the Bernie Sanders campaigns there was basically no organized left. There was some left energy exposed during Occupy and a sense that people were frustrated in a way that left politics could respond to. However, outside of Bernie Sanders there were no mainstream American politicians with a background or desire to speak to that energy.
Bernie Sanders made it known he was interested when he hinted at primarying Obama from the left in 2012, ultimately he decided not to. When he ran in 2016 he had no name recognition and all the baggage of being a curmudgeonly socialist from Vermont. He ended up running an extremely competitive primary that he probably could have won if he transitioned from a messaging campaign set on reviving the left and took winning primaries a little more seriously a few months earlier. Either way, he had a credible shot at winning more than once in that primary. And in 2020 he came even closer to winning. Not to make the exact argument deBoer accuses the left of making, but if not for a historic consolidation of candidates, Bernie Sanders would have won and socialism would be on an unarguably “popular” trajectory. Regardless, compared to where it was just a few years ago, socialism is undeniably incredibly popular.
It’s also fair to make the generational case explicitly. Socialism is only unpopular with older voters. Young people by and large find the term almost as if not more favorable than capitalism. That doesn’t necessarily mean it wins elections now, but it means the future is likely a socialist one. There are even more arguments to be made in favor of the popularity of socialism. The point is, it’s broadly popular in principle and far more so than it used to be.
One thing is true, deBoer is right when he says winning over people to the cause of socialism will be a decades long project. And that’s a lot bigger than just winning elections with socialist candidates, though that’s an important part obviously. One thing that makes that project easier, knowing most people support it in principle and that we’ve seen some remarkable if not sometimes disappointing success.