Update, 10 am 10/14: Sanders addressed questions of whether a Democratic Socialist can be elected president during Tuesday night's debate. "What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent -- almost -- own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent," he said. "That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent."
I don't think that answer is enough for most people. He'll need something better.
Here's an exchange from Bernie Sanders's appearance on "Meet the Press" on Sunday:
CHUCK TODD: Are you a capitalist? @BernieSanders: No. I'm a Democratic Socialist.
— Meet the Press (@meetthepress) October 11, 2015
And, in those five words, Sanders showed why — no matter how much energy there is for him on the liberal left — he isn't getting elected president.
Why? Because Democrat or Republican (or independent), capitalism remains a pretty popular concept — especially when compared to socialism. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey showed that 50 percent of people had a favorable view of capitalism, while 40 percent had an unfavorable one. Of socialism, just three in 10 had a positive opinion, while 61 percent saw it in a negative light.
Wrote Pew in a memo analyzing the results:
Of these terms, socialism is the more politically polarizing — the reaction is almost universally negative among conservatives, while generally positive among liberals. While there are substantial differences in how liberals and conservatives think of capitalism, the gaps are far narrower.
In addition, a recent Gallup poll showed that half of Americans said they would not vote for a socialist. It was, in fact, the least acceptable characteristic tested, behind Muslim and atheist.
Yes, I am aware that some more recent polling — Internet-based, it's worth noting — suggests that socialism is getting more and more popular, particularly among young people. And that, as a recent New Yorker profile of Sanders makes clear, many of his supporters are drawn to his unwillingness to abandon the term. Here's a key passage:
Sanders has been known as a democratic socialist for decades. This didn’t matter much to Kiley or York, or to most other Sanders supporters I met during the next few weeks; mainly, they were impressed that he hadn’t shed the term. York thought that, because of Sanders and his “social-media-driven fans,” socialism was “getting a bit of a P.R. makeover.” She noted that sites like Reddit and Twitter were circulating videos of “Bernie explaining why he identifies as a socialist, and what it means to him, in a really positive light.” She added, “The word had a retro connection to Communism and was originally thrown at him as a damning label by his opponents. But for his supporters it isn’t a deterrent.”
But even in that Internet survey and even among millennials, the group most inclined to see socialism favorably, capitalism is still preferred by more people. And, people who are drawn to Sanders — at least so far — aren't even a majority of Democrats, much less the entire country.
The simple political fact is that if Sanders did ever manage to win the Democratic presidential nomination — a long shot but far from a no shot at this point — Republicans would simply clip Sanders's answer to Todd above and put it in a 30-second TV ad. That would, almost certainly, be the end of Sanders's viability in a general election.
Americans might be increasingly aware of the economic inequality in the country and increasingly suspicious of so-called vulture capitalism — all of which has helped fuel Sanders's rise. But we are not electing someone who is an avowed socialist to the nation's top political job. Just ain't happening.