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Socialism Sux

Every time a Democrat says “socialism,” a voter swings to the right.
by Liam Kerr
February 13, 2023
Socialism Sux
Demonstrators hold signs during a march by supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement in Washington on September 12, 2010. (Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Three years ago “socialism” was the most important subject in American politics. On the Democratic debate stage days before the New Hampshire presidential primary, candidates were asked if they would be concerned by a socialist nominee.

Amy Klobuchar was the only candidate to raise her hand. Asked later about standing out, Klobuchar replied, “The question should be why didn’t everyone else raise their hand?

During that debate Klobuchar correctly noted that “Trump’s worst nightmare is a candidate that will bring people in from the middle.” Her polling average on the night of the debate was just 8 percent. Four days later, she earned 20 percent of the vote.

Because voters—even Democratic base voters—don’t like socialism.

Democrats should have been having night terrors from what was happening 1,500 miles to Klobuchar’s South in Miami-Dade, in another debate about socialism.

In the race for Florida’s 27th House district Maria Salazar, a telegenic former Telemundo host raised by Cuban exiles, was running aggressively against socialism. Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic-held district by 19 points and the 2020 race had been rated as “Safe Democratic” by the data wonks at Inside Elections.

Salazar was criticizing Democratic incumbent Rep. Donna Shalala for refusing to condemn Bernie Sanders’ praise of Fidel Castro. Salazar would go on to win her race by 10 points.

Socialism is a potent political issue. And the same people who wanted Democratic presidential candidates not to raise their hands three years ago—and who Maria Salazar proved wrong later that year—showed last week that they are still in denial of political reality.

House Republicans used their new majority to prioritize a vote on the word “socialism” last week.

The resolution “denouncing the horrors of socialism” was authored by Rep. Salazar. Given her seat-flipping performance in 2020, it is reasonable to assume she is in touch with her constituents and what they want.

So when Salazar put forth a largely symbolic resolution condemning socialist totalitarian dictators such as Joseph Stalin, Democrats were faced with a test. Would they take the bait and try to make a nuanced argument about whether Medicare and Social Security qualify as “socialist”? Or had they learned their lesson and be willing to simply take the issue off the table?

The majority of the House Democratic caucus, led by a forceful call from the mainstream New Democrat Coalition and including the new leadership of Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark, voted to take the issue off the table. Democrats running in competitive swing districts tend to underperform when they are successfully branded as socialists by their opponents. This vote provided an opportunity to triage the party brand by isolating Democratic Socialists against a clear majority of mainstream Democrats.

But in a world where the right and far-left often work in tandem, that was not to be. So many Democrats took the GOP’s bait that Fox News didn’t have to do an ounce of truth-bending to come up with the headline “Vote to condemn the ‘horrors of socialism’ splits Dems: 109 vote for it, 86 vote against.”

That’s literally what happened.

The Democrats who voted against the bill wrote it off as a publicity stunt and a “blatant attempt by Republicans to try and scare Americans.”

Which is true. Also: That’s politics. Which is something the far-left struggles with outside of deep blue bubbles.

The Liberal Patriot’s Ruy Teixeira has labeled this reality-avoidance the “Fox News Fallacy,” in which Democrats mistakenly assume that “if Fox News criticizes the Democrats for X, then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.”

But voters’ concerns about socialism are real and the fact that so many Democrats engaged in Fox News Fallacy-style arguments for voting against Salazar’s resolution shows disrespect for these voters—especially the independents and crossover voters who decide today’s closest elections. It is precisely because voters are afraid of socialism that Democrats should not have fallen into the GOP’s messaging trap.

Let’s start with the basics: America is not a liberal country. As Third Way’s Rachel Reh puts it, “we are a center-right country at best.” Only 25 percent of Americans identify as liberal, while 36 percent and 37 percent identify as conservative and moderate, respectively. In the same vein, just 26 percent of voters identify as Democrats, lagging behind both Republicans (30 percent) and independents (42 percent).

These ideological dispositions carry over to attitudes on socialism. A 2020 Gallup survey found that only 45 percent of Americans say they would be willing to vote for a socialist—no other category tested was below 60 percent. A Marist poll from the same year found that only 28 percent of Americans view socialism favorably while 58 percent view it unfavorably. Among independents, socialism’s favorability shrinks to 23 percent while its unfavorability ticks up to 59 percent.

We witnessed this dynamic on the ground in New Hampshire’s 2020 presidential primary, where our team at the Welcome Party was reaching out to independents and encouraging them to participate in the open primary. This was the far-left’s heyday, with presidential candidates being pushed to the left of Bernie Sanders. Yet a significant driver of the socialist-skeptical Klobuchar’s surge in the Granite State was her bona fides with independents (who accounted for roughly 45 percent of the Democratic primary electorate that year).

Even the Democrats’ traditional coalition members have negative attitudes toward socialism. Hispanic voters are not a monolithic group, but, as TLP has noted, are generally normie voters. Republicans’ double-digit gains among Hispanic voters in recent cycles did not come from nothing. As Carlos Odio and Rachel Stein wrote in their 2020 post-mortem for Equis Research, GOP attacks framing Democrats as socialists “created a space for some Latinos to defect from the Democrats” in Florida and across the country.

The reality of our political moment is that Democrats have no choice but to be a big tent in order to win. Democrats must not only reach out to independents and moderate Republican voters in order to win swing races and national elections, but they must also stop hemorrhaging support from Hispanic and working-class voters. Despite the insistence from the far-left that there’s no penalty that comes with Democrats calling themselves socialists (literally, as in the case of self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders and AOC) or that Republicans will call Democrats “crazy socialists” no matter what, these voters care what candidates call themselves.

Too many Democrats believe they have no agency in shaping the opinion of voters in the middle. At the heart of the Fox News Fallacy is a false powerlessness, combined with disdain for voters in the middle who may actually care how Democrats describe themselves.

Virtue-signaling socialists who want debates about whether Medicare is technically a form of socialism can have them.

But politicians who want to win elections and uphold the democratic order should realize that most voters do not like socialism and that playing word games in the face of this fact has electoral consequences.

Liam Kerr

Liam Kerr is a co-founder of The Welcome Party, which engages independent voters and advocates for a big-tent Democratic party, and @TheWelcomePAC, which supports centrist Democrats who can win over swing voters. Follow him @LiamKerr.