In July, MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews asked Debbie Wasserman Schultz to explain the difference between a socialist and a Democrat. Since 2011, the 49-year-old congresswoman from South Florida has been chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, which, according to its website, is responsible for promoting the Democratic platform, “the statement of core principles at the heart of our Party.” Nevertheless, given the opportunity to draw a distinction between Democratic core principles and socialistic ones, she demurred.
“You’re chairman of the Democratic party. Tell me the difference between you and a socialist,” Matthews pressed. Wasserman Schultz couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do it.
It was a telling exchange. At least since the New Deal, national Democrats have been forced to defend themselves against the charge that their belief in aggressive government intervention in the economy was a smokescreen for their true desire: a “soft” socialism, resembling that which has taken hold across much of Western Europe. Over the years, Democrats have developed a standard reply: if you think this is socialism, then you don’t know what socialism is. President Harry Truman once said that without the New Deal, the tide of true international socialism would have washed over America’s shores during the Great Depression. “Almost surely we would have socialism in this country, real socialism.” President Obama made a similar point in 2013: “People call me a socialist sometimes . . . But, no, you gotta meet real socialists. You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is.”
Though Wasserman Shultz may not have gotten the memo, executing that reliable rhetorical maneuver is no longer necessary. Democrats in 2015 are all-in for socialism. An October YouGov poll revealed that Democrats view socialism more favorably than they do capitalism, by 49 percent to 37 percent. Calling yourself a socialist is no disqualifier for public office in today’s Democratic Party. It might become a requirement.
Tearing a page from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals—“If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive”—Democratic leaders like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are road-testing a redefinition of socialism that they hope the American public finds palatable. It goes like this: government is just the things that we do together; doing things together is socialism; government is socialism. We have a government already; therefore, we have socialism already. Get over it.
In a March Daily Kos article, “75 Reasons Not to Fear Socialism,” Jerry Nelson declared that “socialism is alive and well in America and it’s been here for decades.” As proof, he offered examples ranging from the unobjectionable—bridges, public schools, and the GI Bill—to the absurd—government, the law, and civilization. “I think there are a lot of people who, when they hear the word ‘socialist,’ get very, very nervous,” Sanders said recently. But they shouldn’t, he suggested, because socialism is just another word for all the wonderful things in life. “You go to your public library, or you call your fire department or police department, what do you think you are calling? These are socialist institutions.”
If police and fire departments are socialist, then America has been leaning socialist since Boston established the first publicly funded police department in the United States in 1838—ten years before Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels published their Communist Manifesto. According to this logic, Democrats from FDR to Obama who popped veins in their necks declaring that they weren’t socialists were either lying or confused about the term’s meaning. We’re all socialists, you see, and we always have been.
Bernie Sanders promises to give a policy speech in the coming weeks outlining his vision of Scandinavian-style “social democracy” for America. One imagines that he will make reference to public parks, teachers, paid family leave, and NPR. “Do you like that stuff?” he’ll ask. “If you do, then you’re a socialist.” He won’t mention socialism’s unbroken record of failure and its fundamental incompatibility with human nature. Whether Democrats succeed in rebranding socialism will depend on whether enough Americans believe that saying something often enough can make it so.