Since Bernie Sanders emerged as a national political figure in 2015, he's positioned himself as a "Democratic Socialist," which as some of his critics love to point out, makes him not technically a Democrat. His policies, like Medicare for All, are shared by many left-wing Democrats (thanks in part to Sanders having advocated for them over the years), but in his speeches he has emphasized that he wants to transform American capitalism, not just reform it a la Elizabeth Warren.
Though Sanders's positions have stayed relatively consistent throughout his long career, all of a sudden his socialism makes him a viable presidential candidate. According to a June poll released by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Democrats view socialism positively. Millennials and Gen Z are even more open to the prospect of a socialist candidate, with a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation finding that 70 percent of millennials are at least somewhat likely to vote for a socialist candidate.
But even if socialist is no longer one of the most taboo words in American politics, Sanders still has his work cut out for him. That same Pew survey found that only 42 percent of all Americans view socialism positively. According to a May Gallup poll, fewer than half of Americans would vote for an avowed socialist. It's not clear that everyone has a shared definition for what "socialism" actually means, but if Sanders wins the presidency, he'll do so by convincing people that whatever socialism is, it's a good thing.
In other words, in order to make the U.S. more like a European-style nation with a strong social safety net, Sanders will need to make America's politics more like Europe's, where both moderate and radical socialist parties have been part of the mainstream for decades. For example, 154 members of European Union Parliament from 26 countries belong to the Party of European Socialists, and governments like Portugal's are ruled by a coalition of socialists, communists, and Greens.
Bastiaan van Apeldoorn is a senator for the Dutch Socialist Party and a professor of global political economy at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He thinks that some of Bernie Sanders’s policies are not that radical in comparison to his own party, which advocates for the creation of a National People’s Bank and wants private banks to reimburse society for the help they received during the 2008 financial crisis. Yet even if Sanders's policies may not seem that radical to van Apeldoorn, his rhetoric does.
"Many, myself included, really like Bernie. Sure, some of his proposals, like Medicare for All, are not that radical or extreme, especially from the perspective of my party," van Apeldoorn said, "But what does make him radical, even within a European context, is how explicit his critique is of the capitalist system. I think this differentiates him from Elizabeth Warren for instance, who shares many of the same policy proposals."
Rhetoric alone isn’t enough to transform American politics. Van Apeldoorn offered thoughts on what might move the needle.
Change has to come from the bottom up, van Apeldoorn said. That means not just engaging with issues like housing on a national level, but also engaging with them on a local level, and showing communities that you care beyond the sake of politics.
"My party is a party that really tries to be present in small neighborhoods and be community organizers with the community. We are involved in their actions for improving education in local schools or addressing high rent prices," he said. "The extent to which we do this is different from other parties. I think that this is also one of the unique strengths of the Sanders campaign—its grassroots appeal. [He should] expand that. Show them that you aren’t just elites who represent them. You are them."
Embrace being the anti-establishment party
Sanders’s mere use of the "socialist" label is radical in the U.S. context, especially since even left-wing Democrats have avoided it since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist and host of the “Economic Update" radio program, traces this back to a bargain FDR struck with the socialist and communist labor bloc, then a potent political force, in the New Deal era. "He told them, 'I'll enact radical new policies beyond what you’ve even dreamed of. In return, I don’t want to hear anymore about this socialism and communism business,'" Wolff said.
Since then, "socialist" has become a pejorative, one that was hurled at the decidedly non-socialist Barack Obama. Overcoming this prejudice will be no easy task for Sanders, says Wolff, and if he wants to do so, he will need to tap into people’s intuitive understanding of the injustices of the capitalist status quo. He advises Bernie to continue to emphasize that he is the "anti-capitalist" in the race.
"The overwhelming truth of it is, Americans aren’t socialists yet," said Wolff. "They just aren’t. But, they are becoming anti-capitalists. They realize the system isn’t working. They feel it. They feel it because their job sucks and they’re getting paid peanuts. They feel it because they can’t afford their bills every month. They feel it because they have a university degree and no opportunities. My advice to Bernie then is this: Bernie, you are the anti-capitalist. You are the real alternative. That’s what you need to emphasize. Use socialism as shorthand for that."
Find something to be positive about
Van Apeldoorn agreed that Sanders shouldn’t compromise his language and stances in order to appease the more moderate wing of the Democratic party. But, he cautioned against going too far in the direction of the "anti-capitalist" narrative.
"We’ve had the discussion within our own party a lot about whether we are anti-something or for something," he said. "What we have seen is that our party has focused too much on being against something. Voters are not just against things or fed up with them, they are also in favor of things and they want politicians to draw a picture of the future that is creative, not just 'a future without this.' The messaging needs to be equal parts positive and negative."
Even if Sanders doesn't reach the White House, it's an exciting time to be a socialist in America. In fact, in the wake of a series of losses for left-wing European parties, van Apeldoorn thinks that the future of socialism may lie more in the U.S. than in Europe. He says that precisely because of their acceptance in the political mainstream, European socialists have become complacent, while in the U.S. the election of Donald Trump has created a re-energized left-wing backlash. The energy of change is in the air, it’s just a question of whether it will materialize into anything.
"Of course historically socialism has been part of the European mainstream in ways that it hasn’t in the United States, but both radical and moderate socialist parties within Europe have been doing very badly in recent years," van Apeldoorn said. "We have done a poor job at articulating electorally appealing answers to the contradictions of capitalism that have hurt people so badly. Whether you think he’s a radical or not, you have to recognize that Bernie has struck a chord with people. He inspires people in a way that’s very impressive and in that sense, I think we have something to learn from him."
Gabriel Geiger is an Amsterdam-based freelancer writing about tech, politics, and power.