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Bernie wins support as a generational view of socialism has changed | COMMENTARY

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for a photograph with a supporter after a campaign stop in Denver.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for a photograph with a supporter after a campaign stop in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

“Let me be very clear,” Sen. Bernie Sanders often shouts in what for him is his inside voice.

Frankly, I wish he were more clear. And I wish that the Democratic Party were more clear, too.

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Why is a socialist now a leading contender to be the Democratic Party’s candidate to challenge the incumbent president in the fall?

If anything is evident in this wacky world of national politics it is that party identities can be fluid. The Republicans of today are largely the old Dixiecrat Democrats of yore — the ones President Lyndon Johnson predicted would be lost for at least a generation because they hated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a hallmark of the Johnson administration. As Kanye West might have said: “They didn’t like black people.”

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Back in Lincoln’s time, the Republicans were as good as could be hoped for if you were a black person. So for a few generations those blacks who were permitted to vote without risking life or limb were Republicans. One hundred years ago, they were feeling what a lot of black Democrats are feeling today: valued only at election time, pretty much taken for granted otherwise. They flirted with supporting the Socialist Party, but ultimately stuck with the Republicans for a few more presidencies. Blacks didn’t go all out for the Democratic Party until after they’d experienced the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s three-term presidency. By 1936, the Democratic Party was the new black party — for those who were permitted to vote without risking life or limb.

This flipping and flopping is the polity pursuing its best interest. Sometimes dissident coalitions try to work within the parties, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or the Tea Party. For millennials and Gen Xers, socialism as defined for their generations by the likes of Mr. Sanders sounds OK. Just another strand of contention within the Democratic Party.

But what about for the rest of us, the folks who remember civics classes back in the day, the baby boomers? The “s” word connoted the authoritarian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the wartime ally turned Communist nemesis, the exemplar of godlessness, a despotic regime with no respect for human rights, a system in which dissidents were exiled to gulags or, if they were lucky, to Israel. There was no private industry; government controlled everything. The Soviet Union was a police state where people were constantly spied on. That’s the socialism that the most reliable voters — the older folks — think of when Mr. Sanders proudly calls himself a democratic socialist. And that’s what Donald Trump is counting on.

But those who know political and economic theory better than I, say that Mr. Sanders is not really a socialist socialist. Purists who want to support Mr. Sanders offer him a softer way of describing where he’s coming from, but the candidate stubbornly refuses to call himself a social democrat — a term very familiar to Europeans who practice what he preaches. Think: Scandinavia. He’s a democrat, one committed to a democracy, and he favors a large role for government to secure the basic needs of all. He’s campaigning on promises of health insurance for all, free tuition to public colleges and policies friendly to the environment. He’s saying that his ideas about the role for government are an extension of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

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Interestingly, black people have not run away from all things socialist. Rather than the word and the political theory, they responded to anti-racism. Like abortion is the make-or-break issue for some people today, the question of where a candidate — or a party — stood on racism has always been a predominant issue for black voters.

“The choice is between revolution and results,” presidential candidate Joe Biden is now saying, buoyed by a big win in South Carolina thanks largely to the black electorate. The problem is he is raising the old specter of socialism, a la the USSR, even though for younger voters that specter is about as frightening as Casper the Friendly Ghost. And older voters who feel left out — as they did in 2016 — are listening to how Mr. Sanders would address their fears.

As President Harry S. Truman so famously remarked in 1952, socialism is “a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.” The truth is, as Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University says in the current issue of the New Yorker: “Every major progressive social movement in this country has had a lot of socialists in it.”

Mr. Biden won’t get very far railing against Mr. Sanders the socialist. He’s got to make a case against what Mr. Sanders says he wants to do rather than what Mr. Sanders says he is. And the Democratic Party needs to tell us what it is.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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