As an ex-Republican and the son of a political refugee from a communist country, I have wrestled for years with Bernie Sanders’ chosen brand of “democratic socialist.” Although I have long been an admirer of Bernie and supported him in the 2016 primary, I was very reluctant to support him this time around, because I feared that his far-left image might be too much for moderate swing voters to handle — and therefore, that running Sanders against Trump could mean four more years for the fascist in the White House.
I reluctantly supported Joe Biden for a while because I felt that he would be more electable than Bernie. This was, in large part, because I believed in the theory that centrists will decide the election, and that nominating Sanders is therefore too risky. I assumed that lots of people would vote for a moderate Democrat against Trump, but not for a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
I changed my mind when I became convinced that this assumption is incorrect. In the age of Trump, Sanders’ perceived radicalism may be less of an electoral liability than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. In fact, it may be an advantage.
The 2020 presidential election will be viewed by most people as a referendum on Donald Trump. In 2016, most people didn’t really know how bad he would be. Maybe they should have known, but they didn’t. Now, everyone knows what kind of a president he is: a vicious authoritarian. Nearly everyone who has decided that Trump is a terrible president will, in the end, vote for whoever the Democratic Party nominates to run against him — even Sanders — because they simply do not want four more years of Trump.
Meanwhile, there is a whole new generation of potential voters who might only bother to show up to vote if Sanders is on the ballot. They see him as a heroic figure — the candidate who has spent decades of his life fighting to restore the American Dream, which Millennials and Generation Z feel is being taken away from them by the rich and the powerful. Sanders is fighting passionately for their future. He is like a beloved uncle — the Tio Bernie that the massive wave of Latino youth in Nevada came out to the caucus to support.
Young people, in general, tend to vote less often than older people. They need to be inspired to vote. Any candidate who can inspire their passionate support will increase youth turnout, which will give that candidate an edge in an election when older, more regular voters are already pretty much “locked in,” in this case as pro-Trump or anti-Trump votes.
So let’s talk about how “socialism” plays into all of this. Most Millennials have no memory of the Soviet Union. For Generation Z, it’s already distant history. At 40 years old, I am just old enough to remember the Cold War and the strongly negative perception of socialism during the 1980s. I remember it better than most people my age, because my mother was from the former communist country of Czechoslovakia, and we had relatives there and went to visit them when I was a kid. I will never forget the empty shelves in the grocery store, and having to wipe my butt with newspaper because of the chronic shortages of consumer goods such as toilet paper.
This was how Americans my age and older tended to think about “socialism” in those days — that it was inherently connected with the Soviet Union and economic deprivation. Not so much attention was paid to the democratic and successful versions of socialism such as in Scandinavian countries.
In 1968, when my mom was twenty years old, she was able to travel abroad for a summer job in England. That was during the “Prague Spring” period, when Alexander Dubcek began opening Czechoslovakia to the West. Like Gorbachev in Russia twenty years later, Dubcek opposed a rigid ideological communism and wanted to transition his country to a liberal, democratic philosophy he called “socialism with a human face.” But the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and forcibly removed Dubcek from power, imposing an authoritarian communist regime.
My mom became a refugee. She was not allowed to stay in England, but was able to get political asylum in Germany. That’s where she met my dad, who was studying in Germany after serving there in the U.S. army.
My father was an ardent conservative Republican. After marrying my mom, his already strongly anti-communist views intensified. He worked as a journalist, and in 1980, was the editor of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign newsletter. Soon after I was born, my family moved to the Washington D.C. area when my dad became a political appointee in the Reagan administration.
Growing up, I was taught to believe in the greatness of American capitalism and the terrible evil of communism. But after the Soviet Union fell, and the Republican Party kept moving further and further to the right under George W. Bush and with the rise of the Tea Party, both of my parents and most of my formerly Republican extended family — as well as myself — began voting for the Democrats.
Today, my ex-Republican parents, who were intensely anti-communist during the Cold War, have assured me they would vote for Bernie Sanders if he’s the Democratic nominee. In fact, although he was not their preferred candidate, they don’t even seem all that reluctant to cast their ballots for him. I was surprised to learn this, because I thought that Sanders’ infamous reputation as a “socialist,” and his perhaps excessively friendly attitude toward communist countries in the past, might be too much for them to accept.
But no, they’re fine with Sanders. He’s more liberal than they would prefer, but they are totally committed to using their vote to remove Trump from office, no matter what. They know that Trump is much more like the dictators of the Soviet Union than Sanders would ever be.
I had a big discussion with my parents recently about how they feel about Sanders and his brand of “democratic socialism.” I was surprised to hear my mom reminiscing about the hopeful years of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face.” Back then, she was a young woman who dreamed of a better life. It was Russian dictatorship that was the enemy, not democratic socialism. In fact, democratic socialism was the very reason why young people in her native country had hope.
Their hope was crushed. And the hope of so many young people in America today is being crushed by an American oligarch president who hates democracy, is building a wall (instead of saying “Tear down this wall!”), and is turning into a Russian-backed dictator. As a refugee from a communist country, my mom sees the irony.
Even my dad unequivocally prefers the democratic socialist Sanders over Trump, an authoritarian puppet of Vladimir Putin. He was one of the staunchest supporters of Ronald Reagan and one of the most passionate anti-communists you’d ever meet.
Anecdotal evidence can only take you so far. But if my parents’ example is even somewhat representative of how a lot of Cold War-era Americans are thinking about Trump’s authoritarianism and Sanders’ radical liberal alternative, the specter of the “socialist boogeyman” may have less of an effect on this year’s election than pundits would have us believe.