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This article was updated March 4.
If nothing else, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ robust showing in the California Democratic primary proves this: In the state that gave the nation Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the anti-tax revolt, a decisive chunk of the Democratic electorate is no longer allergic to the word “socialism.”
It’s a political milestone in California history. But it’s not a new one.
In Depression-era 1934 Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle, ran seeking the Democratic nomination for governor and won it decisively, racking up more than 50% of the vote.
Like Sanders, Sinclair was a long-time self-described socialist — though without the “Democratic” suffix that the Vermont senator favors today.
And like Sanders, Sinclair led a grassroots political movement that existed outside the formal Democratic Party structure, seeking to usher young radicals into the party and radical policies into the mainstream. He, too, drew skepticism and disdain from the “establishment” of his time. Even President Franklin Roosevelt refused to endorse him.
Sinclair went onto lose the general election for governor in a three-way race, after a concerted opposition campaign from the right that equated his policies with Communism. But historians say his campaign offered a strong, leftward shove to both California Democratic politics and the national policy agenda of FDR’s New Deal. Stanley Mosk, who cast his first vote for Sinclair and would go on to become associate justice of the California Supreme Court, recalled Sinclair’s campaign as “the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California.”
But as the Cold War set in, the “s”-word became an epithet and an electoral nonstarter in mainstream California politics. There were exceptions — such as the 1970 election of Berkeley Rep. Ronald Dellums, the first Democratic Socialist sent to Congress in the post-WWII era— but they proved the rule.
Then Sanders turned in a surprise showing in his 2016 bid for president, winning 46% of the California primary vote to Hillary Clinton’s 53%
Sanders has won California’s 2020 primary — although any candidates who clear a 15% threshold either statewide or within congressional districts will receive a portion of delegates. It’s those delegates who will actually choose the party nominee at the Democratic National Convention in July. The state party has said it doesn’t expect to apportion all the delegates until April.
Super Tuesday exit polling by NBC News found that 53% of California Democratic primary voters viewed socialism favorably, while 33% viewed it unfavorably. Democratic voters in Texas also approved of socialism by a similar 20 point margin.
So does a Sanders victory suggest that the socialist label might be ready for a comeback here in California? Maybe. Note that San Francisco recently elected Chesa Boudin, the son of the leftist militants, as its district attorney.
As moderate former Vice President Joe Biden turned in a strong showing in several of the Super Tuesday states where results rolled in early, the final pre-election California polls indicated that Sanders was winning with a third of the vote here — and showing particular strength with young voters and Latinos while leading in every region statewide.
What that also means: two-thirds of voters in the California Democratic primary expected to vote for candidates not named Bernie Sanders.
Nonetheless, preliminary exit polls by Edison Research indicating that Californians voting Democratic in 2020 are more liberal than in previous years.
“What does socialism mean here now?” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at UC Berkeley. “Does it carry the boogeyman qualities it had before the (Berlin) Wall fell, which was considerable? Whether it still has electoral legs in California or anywhere else is a really good question.”
And if there’s any question that the voters who rallied to the Vermont senator in California somehow neglected to notice the “Democratic Socialist” label he’s been proudly boasting for years, consider a recent CBS poll. Taken the week before Election Day, the survey found that 57% of likely Democratic primary voters in the state had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of socialism, compared to only 45% who felt the same about capitalism.
Though pollsters don’t regularly ask about “socialism,” that appears consistent with views among Democratic voters nationwide. A Gallup national survey from 2018 found a nearly identical breakdown, with 57% holding favorable views of socialism and 47% backing capitalism.
That was driven by the responses of market-skeptical young respondents. It was also unique to self-described Democrats. On the whole, only 37% of the 1,505 adults surveyed reported feeling positive about socialism.
That may be remarkable for the post-Cold War era, but compared to the 1934 race for governor, the 2020 presidential primary in California looks awfully familiar, said Greg Mitchell, author of The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics.
Prior to running, Sinclair changed his party affiliation for registered Socialist to Democrat in order to run in the primary, said Mitchell. Under party pressure, Sanders did the same.
And like the Vermont senator, Sinclair’s electoral ambitions were undergirded by a political movement, called the “End Poverty in California” campaign, that existed independent of the party establishment and billed itself as EPIC.
“They formed thousands of grassroots clubs across the state,” said Mitchell, who called it “the greatest mass movement in the state’s history.”
But the party establishment balked. “Though desperate to fend off ‘the socialist carpetbagger,’” wrote University of Washington historian James Gregory, “the party’s bitterly antagonistic factions could not unite around an alternative candidate for the upcoming primary election.”
Sinclair ended up losing the gubernatorial election to Republican Frank Merriam. But his “End Poverty” campaign put pressure on the Roosevelt Administration to expand many of the programs that made up the New Deal.
Apparently Sinclair himself was tickled by the effect of his failed campaign on Washington policymakers. “It appears that Mr. Hopkins has a plan which he calls EPIA, and it means ‘End Poverty in America,’” he wrote in a post-campaign memoir, referring to Harry Hopkins, who administered the Works Progress Administration for Roosevelt. “Well, well, well!”
In fact, Sinclair’s campaign provided the “impetus behind the creation of the Works Progress Administration which in 1935 replaced the patchwork of emergency relief programs that Sinclair had loudly attacked,” according to Gregory.
Likewise, Sanders, in failing to win the Democratic nomination in 2016, left an indelible ideological mark on the party. Four years ago, he was the only high profile voice calling for “Medicare for All.” This campaign season, many of the party’s most notable presidential hopefuls (including California Sen. Kamala Harris) signed on to the idea — at least in part.
But Sanders’ and Sinclair’s twin brands of socialism aren’t directly comparable, said Mitchell.
While most of Sanders’ policy prescriptions — a single payer health insurance system, free university education — would not be considered radical in many western democracies, Sinclair’s socialism was the real deal. He proposed confiscating underused land and factories and collectivizing them into state paid workers’ co-ops that would produce goods for barter.
Another plan that earned Sinclair the wrath of the Hollywood studios: “He wanted to set up a state movie studio and put all these unemployed people throughout Hollywood to work making state-funded films,” said Mitchell. “That’s an example of a real socialist plan.”
Socialism as a political brand in California never really recovered. The next decade, the United States entered World War II and, following that, the Cold War. That, along with the massive increase in military-related spending and employment in California that came along with it, made the state fertile ground for a new generation of conservative leaders running on anti-communist political rhetoric. In Orange County, Richard Nixon ascended the electoral ladder, from congressman to U.S. senator, by repeatedly accusing his Democratic opponents of being “pink.” In Hollywood, an actor named Ronald Reagan launched the beginnings of his career in conservative politics by testifying against alleged communist sympathizers.
Of course “socialism” and “capitalism” are squishy words.
When conservatives and conservative media warn of the peril of socialism, they often point to Venezuela, which has suffered prolonged economic and political turmoil under Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party.
When Sanders and his supporters speak of the virtues of “Democratic Socialism” (with an emphasis on “democratic”), they offer up a very different set of touchstones: Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and the expansive safety nets enjoyed in otherwise fairly market-oriented economies like Denmark and Sweden.
And though Sanders may inveigh against “the billionaire class,” you would not see The New York Times refer to him as leading a movement “against the profit system,” a description it applied to Sinclair.
Sanders himself has defined his ideology as one that mimics countries with “successful records in fighting and implementing programs for the middle class and working families” and completes “the unfinished business of the New Deal.”
He might just as easily point to the recent politics of California, said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“How different is the Bernie agenda from the agenda of Democrats in Sacramento?” he said.
Only a handful of legislators endorsed Sanders, and Gov. Gavin Newsom did not endorse any presidential candidate. But Newsom did run for office in 2018 on a promise to introduce a Medicare for All-like health insurance program and a universal early childcare program. Sanders supports both.
“What we call Democratic Socialism is not that different from what Newsom wants,” said Whalen. That could be taken as an indication of just how far left California Democrats have shifted — or just how imprecise the term “socialism” really is.
“A lot of this comes down to packaging,” Whalen said. “In California, you hear about many of the same policy ideas described with the term ‘progressive.’”
While that bit of rebranding might help win over older voters whose political compases were set during the Cold War, younger voters — a disproportionate number of whom have no recollection of the Iron Curtain — aren’t as likely to find the term off-putting.
Those are also voters who have spent much of their lives hearing conservatives fix Democratic policies of all kinds as “socialist,” said UC Berkeley’s Rosenthall.
“If you follow something like the Tea Party throughout the Obama years,” he said, “equating Obama, who was rather modest in his liberalism, with socialism and communism was a kind of taken for granted point of view.”
That, said Rosenthall, may have taken the sting out of what was once a damning characterization.
Ironically, it was Pete Buttigieg, the former presidential candidate who later firmly positioned himself as a centrist alternative to Sanders, who most clearly articulated that view in one of the early televised debates.
“If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what (Republicans are) going to do?” he said. “They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. Let’s stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”