Socialism is stirring politics again, whether wielded as a governing philosophy, an insult, or both. In the U.S. presidential race and elsewhere around the world, the term is being newly embraced, debated or disparaged amid larger conversations about rising inequality, the proper role of government, how to make sure capitalism works for average citizens -- and what socialism really is, and isn’t.

1. Why is socialism being debated in the U.S.?

America’s best-known and highest-ranking self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was riding high after the first contests for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. He’s pitching universal health care and tuition-free college education in a campaign that’s been defined so far by competing proposals to raise taxes on the rich. He now has some company in Congress in Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, members of Democratic Socialists of America who won election in 2018. Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are among the backers of a “Green New Deal” to zero out fossil fuels by 2030 and a “Medicare for All” nationalized health insurance system, both of which have been mocked by U.S. President Donald Trump.

2. Do U.S. Democrats embrace the socialism label?

Like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, Sanders distinguishes between socialism and so-called democratic socialism as practiced in Denmark and Sweden, which provide health care, education and generous welfare systems paid for by high taxes that redistribute wealth. In a 2019 speech, Sanders said that he believes “in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.” Senator Elizabeth Warren, the other Democratic presidential whose policy ideas evoke talk of socialism, has called herself “capitalist to the bone” and a supporter of “capitalism with serious rules.”

3. How does Trump use the term?

He’s working to revive a conservative line of attack on Democrats that dates back generations: that the American way of life is threatened by rising socialism or even by its most extreme form, communism. Trump has warned that Sanders and other likeminded Democrats would turn the U.S. into a failed state resembling Venezuela. In his Feb. 4 State of the Union address to Congress, Trump said Democrats were proposing “a socialist takeover of our health care system.” Trump has found support in Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who warned in an op-ed column that socialism “inevitably produces stagnation, corruption and the specter of authoritarian bureaucrats maintaining power by interfering with the economy and individual lives.” Sanders responded with a campaign ad labeling Dimon “the biggest corporate socialist in America today,” citing bailouts JPMorgan received after the global financial crisis 12 years ago.

4. What is socialism, exactly?

In a dictionary sense, it’s an economic and political system under which the government controls major industries and decides how its products and proceeds are distributed. Early socialists were driven by a utopian ideal of equality and social solidarity, which they saw as incompatible with unrestrained capitalism. Sanders, in 1990, said socialism “means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.” To critics, socialism is best defined by the history of repressive and ultimately failed regimes that claimed the term, including the USSR -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In practice, almost all countries now have what’s called a mixed economy, with governments taking greater or lesser roles. Even places like Scandinavia, seen as the pinnacle of democratic socialism, have capitalist economies, albeit highly regulated ones.

5. What do Americans think of socialism?

Among Americans older than 55, favorable views of capitalism overwhelm favorable views of socialism, 68% to 32%, according to an October 2019 Gallup poll. But in that same poll, Americans 18 to 34 in age viewed socialism more favorably than capitalism by 5 percentage points, 52% to 47%. There’s widespread support for big government programs -- Social Security payments to seniors, health coverage for the elderly and poor through Medicare and Medicaid, benefits for the unemployed and disabled -- that once were derided as socialist in nature.

6. Who else is weighing or rethinking socialism, and why?

In France, Yellow Vest protesters agitated for more benefits paid for by the wealthy, and the government of President Emmanuel Macron blamed capitalism for fueling inequality. Atop Spain’s new coalition government, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party plan to fund more social spending with higher taxes on large companies and wealthy individuals. Elsewhere, some socialist movements are in decline. Germany’s Social Democrats ended 2019 more unpopular than at any time in living memory. In the U.K., the opposition Labour Party was trounced at the polls in December under an avowed socialist who proposed re-nationalizing rail, energy and water companies. And Ecuador, once associated with authoritarian socialist regimes such as those in Venezuela and Nicaragua, is moving in a new direction under President Lenin Moreno, who unexpectedly steered the country to the right after taking office, spurring violent protests that forced him to move the government out of the capital temporarily.

Sahil Kapur contributed to an earlier version of this article.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at, Paul Geitner, John O’Neil

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