Socialism isn’t a dirty word in American politics anymore

Americans are ready… to be more like Denmark?
Americans are ready… to be more like Denmark?
Image: Reuters/Bob Strong
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“We are not Denmark,” Hillary Clinton famously declared at the first Democratic primary debate on Oct. 13. But while the remark elicited a combination of laughter and applause from the debate audience, it also raised an interesting question for many Americans: Should we be Denmark?

According to the OCED Better Life Index, the Kingdom of Denmark boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. It ranks admirably in work-life balance, environmental quality, and education. Universal healthcare—it almost goes without saying—is a right of citizenship, and the Danish parental leave system is among the most generous and flexible in the European Union. This year, Denmark also received the third highest happiness rating in the World Happiness Report, a study that looks at factors like GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support systems, and perceived degree of corruption. Last year, it had the single highest happiness rating in the world, period.

Republican thinking dictates that the road to happiness is paved via less government and lower taxes, but Denmark’s not-so-secret secret lies in its extensive government welfare measures and comparably equitable distribution of income. In an age of gross economic inequality, it is perhaps not surprising that some Americans are beginning to look toward the Danish example.

We’re certainly starting to see this trend in liberal politics. During the Democratic debate we witnessed repeated calls for universal health care, paid maternity leave, and affordable college education. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, railed at Republicans for demonizing big government: “We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that,’ except for what they want to impose on the American people.” The US can afford government programs, Clinton insisted. “I know we can afford [paid leave] because we’re going to make the wealthy pay for it.”

You mean, like Denmark? While the “victor” of the debates continues to be a hotly debated question, it appears that the real winner may have been socialism ITSELF.

Considered something of a dirty word for much of the 20th century, socialism has long been associated in the minds of many Americans with the poverty, scarcity, and interminable bread lines of the Soviet Union. During the McCarthy era, it was often used interchangeably with communism, the most treacherous and un-American of affiliations.

But today socialism seems to be repairing its reputation, thanks at least in part to the cheery examples put forth by Denmark and its Scandinavian neighbors. Indeed, it is remarkable that a self-identifying socialist (Clinton rival Bernie Sanders) can poll, as Sanders does, at a respectable 23%, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. It is even more remarkable still to hear a discussion of socialism featured so frankly in an American presidential debate.

A 2011 Pew Research survey found that, among voters under the age of thirty, 49% have a positive view of socialism. And Sanders seems to think more voters will take this view once they understand what socialism really is.

Videos of his explanations have been circulating on sites like Reddit: “What democratic socialism is about,” he explains, “is having a government which reflects the interests of ordinary people rather than what is currently the case, the billionaire class.” Sanders frames socialism as a solution to greed, corruption, and injustice—a better way of organizing society. Sanders himself may be partially responsible for socialism’s facelift: His unique appeal as a candidate—his authenticity, his sense of moral urgency—makes the philosophy he preaches more attractive.

Sanders is also quick to point out that countries like Denmark have a substantial voter turnout and “vigorous democracies.” Indeed, in 2011, it was a staggering 87.7%. In last November’s midterm elections, by contrast, 63% of Americans (including, notably, 80% of young Americans) didn’t vote. “Republicans win,” Sanders emphasized, “when there is a low voter turnout.”

The implication the senator from Vermont is drawing is that results could look quite different in the US—and could lean quite further left—if a more significant slice of American voters turned out at the polls. This is a direct answer to CNN pundit and debate host Anderson Cooper’s skepticism about whether Americans would really vote a socialist into the White House. The problem isn’t socialism, it’s that voters have lapsed too far into political apathy to make it happen.

The cure? According to Sanders, it’s a political revolution, something to jolt Americans out of indifference and re-energize the electorate. Interestingly the term “revolution” itself smacks of radical measures and destabilizing change; it’s tainted by Jacobin and Bolshevik associations. Certainly, no other candidate would be bold enough to talk in those terms, but the revolution Sanders is calling for isn’t about riots in the streets; it’s about democratic engagement and participation: “The only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together,” he noted during the debate. “If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities, millions of young people are going to have to demand it … If we want to raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour, workers are going to have to come together and look the Republicans in the eye and say, ‘We know what’s going on. You vote against us, you are out of your job.’”

This call to action is what sets Sanders apart most noticeably from the other candidates. They talk about how they will lead and create change; he calls on Americans to be the change themselves through the sheer force of participation. It’s a call that carries an unmistakably ethical edge. Participation in this sense is the ethical obligation of democratic citizens; apathy, a kind of moral degeneracy.

It is hard to believe a call as reasonable and as deeply rooted in the tenets of American democracy as participation can amount to a revolution. And yet, it’s not exactly a stretch to say that voter turnout of the kind Denmark enjoys would completely reset America’s political landscape. It might even, one day, allow the White House to welcome to a socialist.