Proponents of these and other measures do not seem afraid of being called “socialist,” and many of them have historically leaned toward the center, not the left. That’s obviously because of the moment. But it may also be among the legacies of Bernie Sanders’s historic run in the Democratic Party primary. In unapologetically embracing the “democratic socialist” moniker, Sanders dulled the socialist label’s stigmatizing power and might have even normalized the term. In turn, it’s expanded the universe of policy solutions to support Americans during the pandemic — and beyond it.
That’s striking, given McCarthyism’s impact on American politics over the past 60 years. Most know McCarthyism as driving loyalty oaths and investigative boards throughout the 1950s that scrutinized people for associations with Communism or broader left-wing sympathies. But its residual effects endured long after the House Un-American Activities Committee closed up shop. They’re on display any time an ambitious domestic policy proposal is denounced as “socialist.”
Consider, for example, health care. Every proposed expansion of government-funded coverage has had to deal with the boogeyman of socialism. The Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill in 1947, which would have created national health insurance, was smeared along such lines by opponents like the American Medical Association, which characterized it as “socialized medicine” and government monopoly on medicine. The same happened with Medicare, though it eventually passed successfully. In 1962, future president Ronald Reagan declared, in a speech for the AMA, that if Medicare were to become a reality, the country would soon “awake to find that we have socialism."
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s health-care proposals also attracted McCarthyist attacks, even though both relied heavily on private health insurance companies and the market. Yet the distance between these proposals and socialism didn’t protect them from being attacked as “socialism.” Through his time in office, Obama constantly fended off persistent charges from right-wing groups that he was a socialist, largely because the Affordable Care Act expanded government intervention in the health-care market.
It’s not just medicine, though. Historically, the threat of being publicly labeled a socialist has exerted powerful chilling effects in many areas. Officials investigated by the government during the 1940s, as part of the “federal loyalty program,” sometimes dropped out of government altogether or advocated much more diluted positions to preempt political innuendo and attacks. One former ardent advocate of public housing, Catherine Bauer, subsequently went so far as to repudiate much of the idea altogether by the late 1950s.
Ellen Schrecker has found a similar impact in academia, identifying a de facto blacklist in the 1940s and 1950s, whereby universities regularly denied promotion or nixed the hiring of leftist professors. It affected all fields, even the basic sciences, medicine and mathematics, and led to self-censorship and the marginalization of leftist thinking in the social sciences and humanities. The latter wouldn’t be reversed until the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s trickled into the university and reshaped academic knowledge.
McCarthyism’s long shadow is thus what made Sanders’s popularity as a democratic socialist all the more remarkable. Young people, increasingly removed from the Cold War, didn’t see his democratic socialism — in reality, a mix of New Deal liberalism and a hodgepodge of reforms collected from Western Europe and Taiwan — as all that threatening. Nor did they seem to care what term he used to characterize his proposals.
Sanders himself, meanwhile, invoked safe American political iconography, most prominently Franklin D. Roosevelt and major pillars of the modern American welfare state, like Social Security and collective bargaining. And he consistently connected economic autonomy to liberty and freedom, which historians like Eric Foner have identified as a core tenet of political thinking during the American Revolution. Sanders’s socialism, in short, was much more American than Soviet.
This rhetorical strategy bore similarities to that of one of Sanders’s heroes: Eugene Debs, who ran for president as the Socialist Party nominee four times, winning nearly a million votes in his last two campaigns in 1912 and 1920. But, Debs consistently wrapped a socialist program in palatable American tropes, and he regularly peppered his speeches with references to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and abolitionists, not to mention Emerson and Thoreau.
Unlike Debs, Sanders didn’t run as a third-party candidate; he had a far greater impact and influence, fighting on the turf of the Democratic Party in 2016 and 2020, and both times, came stunningly close to securing the nomination. In the process, he defanged “socialism” of its power as a political epithet.
That matters a lot now. In a covid-19 world, sweeping domestic legislation may be floated over the next couple years. Its opponents will no doubt open the old playbook and hurl “socialism” its way. Yet I suspect such McCarthyist histrionics will carry less weight than they once did and feel more like relics of a Cold War mausoleum. At a time of near-record unemployment, many are hungry for fresh economic policies and care less about what they’re called or what connotations people attach to old labels. That’s partly because of Sanders’s unapologetic embrace of domestic socialism, his tying of it to the United States’s biggest social welfare triumphs, and his unlikely emergence as a prominent critic of our modern brand of capitalism with its stark inequalities and fraying safety net.
For decades, the shadow of McCarthyism has lingered and made it easy to marginalize critics with the socialist charge. Sanders confronted it head-on and weakened the tactic’s power. Whatever you think of Sanders himself, it’s a big reason to appreciate his two campaigns.