Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden didn't toss a Hail Mary pass to save his seeming flagging candidacy when he told an interviewer, "Are you going to walk into any of those states we have to win, like Florida, and other places that we're going to win, in Georgia and North Carolina, and embrace a Democratic nominee who describes himself as a democratic socialist." The Democratic nominee he was talking about was rival Bernie Sanders. He was right. And his answer to his own question, "What do you think Trump is going to do with that?" punctuated the colossal dilemma Sanders will have, not just in the five or six must win states, but more than a few others nationally if he bags the nomination.
Now it's true that some polls have shown that younger Americans don't have the hang-up, fear, or loathing for a socialist. And since Sanders has made it a point to tout his democratic socialist position, more Americans are curious about just what a socialist is. But the same polls that list every group Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, women, and even atheists that has at one time or another been considered political pariahs, still find that while a majority might vote for one of them, a majority still said they still wouldn't vote for a socialist.
The mix of fear, confusion, and wariness about socialism constantly dogged former President Obama during his days in the White House. The two vicious and relentless slurs against him were he was a closet Jihadist sympathizer and a rabid socialist. There were millions of references, quotes, quips, comments, and notations on Google that tarred him as a socialist. Obama at times laughed the smear off, and at other times simply chalked it up as part of the GOP's dirty war to taint, obstruct, and undermine his presidency. But it didn't much matter. The fear and belief topped every tidbit of rational, common sense about him.
Hidden in the polls that show that more younger Americans are more open too hearing out and even voting for a socialist candidate, is the implicit acknowledgement that older Americans aren't. They are the ones who are far more likely to vote than the millennials.
"Socialist" is a loaded term that has always touched a raw nerve with many Americans, old and young. The old Cold War image for decades of a socialist drilled home images of Lenin and Joe Stalin, bloody dictators, gulags, and totalitarianism. This has been more than enough to put a deathly scare in most Americans. To many, a socialist is someone who is pro-union, pro-increased government spending on health and education programs, and pro-civil liberties and especially civil rights. This always drew fire from the right. During the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was routinely smeared as a communist and socialist.
The mildest criticism of big business and the wealthy insure a slap on of the socialist tag. The American economic sacred cow is that laissez-faire wealth is tantamount to a divine right of kings, and any attempt to touch it is economic heresy. Politicians have long known that it's the kiss of death to be seen as an advocate for tax and income fairness. That invites being plastered with the socialist tag.
Any talk of putting more wealth into the hands of the non-wealthy in the way of tax cuts, a Social Security tax increase on upper-income wage earners, capital gain increases, and closing tax shelter loopholes is plainly regarded as wealth redistribution downward. Sanders, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Warren, have stood this on its head and crusaded against wealth inequality and the unfettered greed of Wall Street and big corporate CEOs. Their drumbeat attacks have touched a nerve with a lot of Democrats. But it has also turned off a lot of Democrats too. There's as yet no clear evidence that ousting the corporate fat cats from their seat of wealth power is a winning vote getting formula just about anywhere in the country.
There is much evidence, though, that it has put fright in Biden and other centrist Democrats who see this as a sure-fire loser for the party. Sanders has at times tried to micro-massage a nuance in his self-imposed label of democratic socialist by stressing the "democrat" before socialist. For most Americans outside of maybe a handful of poli sci professors it's a nuance that in no way cancels out the visceral disdain of socialism by legions of Americans. It taps into the deeply held belief and even fear that Sanders would actually mug the rich and by extension those who fantasize about being rich.
Sanders has taken some pains to assure the public that nothing could be further from the truth. While he's still just a candidate for his party's nomination, he can enjoy the bounce he's gotten in the polls. The test though for Sanders and socialism will come if he is the eventual nominee. Biden for one says it's a test he can't and won't pass. He's right.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of What's Right and Wrong with the Electoral College (Middle Passage Press. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. He publishes a weekly political blog, thehutchisnonreport.net