Sunday bottom cartoon

Many Republicans (and not a few Democrats) seem flustered, angry and fearful about the popularity of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. For decades, Sanders has identified himself as a “democratic socialist,” and his policies echo those embraced by many countries in Western Europe. Both of these are triggers for many Americans. But Sanders’ appeal isn’t a mystery, and the threat he presents is less than the alarmists would have you think.

I’m not a Bernie supporter (I was for Amy Klobuchar even before she announced her candidacy), but I can understand why many people are so ardent about him.

For one thing, he is one of the best people out there (arguably, along with President Trump himself) in describing the problems that working people face right now. I wrote here earlier about attending one of his rallies in Iowa and seeing the visceral connection he had with the baristas, farmers, hourly workers and teachers in the audience as he talked about tax policy and health care. It’s no accident that his skill set overlaps with Trump’s in this way; in truth, they both owe their success to dissatisfaction among the less affluent. The reality on the ground is that we have a problem in this country rooted in income inequality. The fact Trump and Sanders offer very different solutions does not change the fact they both succeed politically by saying many things that working people already know.

Yet many wonder: Why doesn’t the “socialism” part scare everyone away?

For many Sanders supporters, the term is no problem; they understand that “democratic socialists” envision a country more like Sweden than like the Soviet Union, and they see advantages in that. But for many others, the label just doesn’t matter. They like the underlying policies that Sanders promotes, and the word “socialist” does not carry the sting it did 30 years ago. The passion of many Sanders supporters isn’t the product of a cult of personality; rather, they genuinely like his social critique and his solutions. Their lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton as the nominee probably had more to do with her more moderate policy positions and coziness with Wall Street than anything else.

Part of this is because of hyperbolic campaigning by Republicans in the past. In labeling Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — two men more moderate than nearly any Democratic candidate in the current primaries — as “socialists,” Republicans effectively diluted the meaning of the term. Rush Limbaugh, Trump and commentators on Fox News had the legal right to incorrectly label Obama a socialist, but that tactic is coming home to roost. Many in younger generations likely think that if Obama of all people was socialist, then being a socialist isn’t such a terrible thing. Crying “wolf” has consequences.

The deep-seated fear of socialism found in many older people is largely a product of the Cold War and longstanding antagonism toward Russia (and, to a lesser extent, China). The Cold War is long over, and young people — a primary source of Sanders’ support — were born after the Berlin Wall fell. And Republicans under Trump are, if anything, seen as cozying up to Russia and China rather than demonizing them. Trump’s refusal to confront authoritarian leaders in Russia, China and North Korea distinguishes him from predecessors such as Ronald Reagan who named and shamed the troubling tendency of some socialist regimes to devolve into authoritarianism.

Sanders is a long way from winning the nomination, and even further from winning a general election. Even if elected, the fear of Sanders seems premised on the unfounded belief that his most costly initiatives would become law upon his election. In truth, there’s almost no chance that even a Democrat-controlled Congress would support those proposals. Sanders is far to the left of the great majority of Democrats in the House and Senate, after all. Some might fear that Sanders would try to impose his plans without Congress, but this seems unlikely. Certainly, President Trump has steadfastly tried to increase the power of the presidency. Unlike Trump, though, Sanders has spent decades on Capitol Hill and is unlikely to continue such a push.

The biggest obstacle to Sanders’ plans would probably be the time bomb that Trump will leave behind to any successor, Republican or Democrat: An unconscionable and overwhelming national debt now accumulating at a rate of over $1,000,000,000,000 a year. Yes, count those zeroes!

Could Sanders win the presidency? Sure, just as Trump did: by appealing to working-class voters as an agent of change. Would that be the end of America as we know it? Nope. Rather it would represent another gradual shift in our politics, blunted by constitutional checks and balances, the realities of budgets and the essential moderation of the American electorate.

Former federal prosecutor Mark Osler, who taught at Baylor Law School from 2000 to 2010, is professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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