Bernie’s Legacy and the Enduring Unpopularity of Socialism

We hear a lot of talk these days that Bernie Sanders changed politics forever, even if he appears increasingly unlikely he will become the Democratic nominee.* It’s not obvious what the motivation is behind expressing such sentiments, since the idea appears to come from all corners. But whatever their purpose, it’s also worth asking whether it’s actually true.

If it were true, we could imagine that there would be a resurgence in the popularity of socialism, since that’s how Bernie Sanders identifies himself. Granted, socialism is something of a confusing label, because as bad as Sanders’ economic policies were, they weren’t really socialist in the traditional sense of government-owned means of production. Still, since the average American voter is unlikely to draw careful ideological distinctions, it seems fair to assume many people now think of socialism as something like Bernie’s professed platform–expanding the welfare state, moving towards single-payer healthcare, free college, taxing the rich (and the poor, with the latter done more subtly), etc.

So if it were true that Bernie’s message changed politics, one would imagine support for loosely defined socialism would be on the rise and support for the similarly vague concept of capitalism would be declining.

Which is why, as a libertarian, I’m pleased to cover a new Gallup poll today which shows that socialism’s popularity appears to be on the decline.

The poll also shows that while capitalism, as an idea, has many detractors. Yet the most important real world manifestations of capitalism–entrepreneurs and small business, enjoy near-unanimous popularity. It makes perfect sense, but it’s still a remarkable result. Many of us hear enough bad things attributed to big business and capitalism that those faceless abstractions become relatively unpopular. But small business and entrepreneurs play a key role, if indirectly, in our daily lives, whether it’s the food cart down the street or the local coffee shop around the corner. If the businesses are successful enough, many such owners could fall within the eminently-hateable designation of the 1%. As long as people can associate free market concepts closely with more real experiences, however, they appear to have a favorable view. And of course they would. If you don’t like things in an open market, then you can go somewhere else until you find something you do like. There’s little reason not to be satisfied with such an arrangement.

This also ties back to the prevailing sentiment and anger among former Bernie supporters that he was cheated out of the nomination. Clearly, the odds were against him, and the superdelegate system begs for contempt. But it’s worth remembering that Clinton actually won more of the pledged delegates and more of the popular vote. Indeed, on the popular vote front, it’s not even that close (3.7M vote differential or a roughly 13 point spread). Those figures don’t include caucuses since individual votes don’t get tallied for those, which could shift the balance a little towards Bernie. And we could always argue that things would be different without closed primaries or a media that limited Sanders’ exposure** to some degree. Even taking those things into account, it’s not at all clear that could solve a 13 point margin.

Moreover, if we’re trying to gauge the popularity of Sanders and his likely impact on politics in general, we’d really need to tease out the Democrats that would have been willing to vote for any Not-Hillary option. I don’t have a compelling way to do so, but it would further moderate any claims of a Sanders-fueled revolution of hearts and minds.

What is more likely is that Sanders inspired an incredibly enthusiastic and hardcore base of support, much like Ron Paul did in 2008 and 2012. Such a following makes for impressive rallies by political standards. (After all, I’ve never understood where they find the people that are willing to attend Clinton, Romney, McCain, etc. rallies unless they’re being offered campaign jobs.) And this same core following is going to make the most noise about any perceived or legitimate wrongdoing in the media or party establishment. That said, none of that means the underlying opinions of the American people have changed drastically–they didn’t for Ron and they didn’t for Bernie either.

The true test of Bernie’s impact will be on whether he has a lasting influence on the political views of his core following. In Ron’s case, it’s certainly true that he inspired a new wave of libertarians, even if it wasn’t large enough to produce electoral success. It remains to be seen whether Bernie promotion of a large welfare state in combination with bombing slightly fewer people in the Middle East will have a lasting appeal.

H/T: For more on the poll mentioned above, refer to this excellent discussion from Daniel Mitchell at FEE.

*And yes, that could change if Hillary got indicted. But do you really think the same government that declined to prosecute torture is going to hold a powerful official to account over mishandling classified information? Obviously, that’s rhetorical.

**For what it’s worth, as a former Ron Paul supporter in 2008 and 2012, I am compelled to note that Sanders got dramatically more media attention than Ron Paul. Lest anyone should doubt it, you can watch this depressing, and admittedly slightly-too-conspiratorial-for-my-tastes, compilation of examples from 2012.

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