The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders is an avowed socialist. 52 percent of Democrats are OK with that.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to a crowd during a town hall meeting at Clarke University, in Dubuque, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/The Telegraph Herald, Mike Burley)
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When he first won election to the House in 1990, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) embraced his political identity. "I am a socialist and everyone knows that," Sanders said, responding to an ad that tried to link him to the regime of Fidel Castro.

He continued: "They also understand that my kind of democratic socialism has nothing to do with authoritarian communism."

Times change. With the Cold War fading in the rear view mirror, being nice to Cuba isn't the political liability that it once was. And no longer does the term "socialist" carry the same stigma it once did -- in part because self-identified socialists are few and far between.

Once upon a time, Gallup included "Socialist" in its list of political affiliations in polling. (We'll take this opportunity to remind the reader that Socialist refers to a member of the Socialist political party, while socialist is someone who adheres to the tenets of socialism -- which we'll come back to.) At no point did more than 1 percent of respondents call themselves Socialists, and Gallup, which started asking the question in 1939, stopped asking by 1948.

In part, that's because they were already late to the wave (having been founded in 1935). A look at historic vote results shows that the peak of interest in Socialist candidates for the presidency came in 1912, when Eugene V. Debs pulled in almost 6 percent of the vote on the Socialist ticket. A number of other socialists appeared on the ballot over the years, in the Socialist Labor or Socialist Workers' parties -- and, of course, there have been regular candidates running as Communists.

Communism and Communists are not socialism and Socialists, but the distinction is increasingly being lost. Last year, a Reason-Rupe poll asked people about their attitudes toward various economic systems. More than half of respondents viewed capitalism favorably, while 36 percent viewed socialism positively. Among Democrats, capitalism and socialism were viewed similarly, with 52 percent of those responding giving a thumbs up. (Slightly more Democrats viewed socialism very favorably, but not to a point of statistical significance.)

That's assuming people knew what socialism was. Asked to define the term, one-fifth said it referred to government control of the economy. A quarter said they didn't know. Other research suggests that younger people are both less hostile to the concept and less likely to know what it is, having lived through less of the Cold War.

So when Bernie Sanders, avowed socialist, announces his presidential bid on Thursday, he will not have a large pool of Socialists from which to draw support. But he will also probably not have to deal with any ads linking him to Cuba. If in 1990 "they" understood that Sanders' form of socialism wasn't the same as Castro's communism, now, Democrats in particular don't really care.

Somewhat amazingly, socialism has seen its political slate nearly wiped clean.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a White House contender in 2016, is known for his stances on budget issues and war. Here are his takes on Obamacare, Social Security and more. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)