WASHINGTON — Democrats bristle, but Republicans have successfully framed the 2020 election as a struggle against socialism — an ideology that not one Democratic contender says they advocate.
President Donald Trump set the table in his State of the Union speech when he declared that “America will never be a socialist country.” He has reiterated the warning over and over since then, most recently on Saturday, when he set off thunderous applause at a major conservative gathering by depicting a push toward “total domination” by government.
“Socialism is not about the environment. Socialism is not about justice. Socialism is about only one thing, it’s called power for the ruling class. Look at what’s happening in Venezuela,” he said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “The future does not belong to those who believe in socialism.”
Democrats call the comparison ridiculous and inflammatory. Embracing a more expansive social safety net, they say, is fundamentally different from the autocratic socialism practiced in Cuba, Venezuela or the former Soviet Union.
In Texas last year, 11-term Dallas congressman Pete Sessions tarred challenger Colin Allred as a socialist, but to no avail. Allred handily unseated him, 52-46.
And Sen. Ted Cruz likewise slapped the label on Beto O’Rourke, who may soon join the Democratic presidential field. The El Paso congressman pushed back then, and again last month when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders declared for president on Feb. 19, triggering a fresh round of Republican warnings about creeping socialism.
Sanders and another self-described democratic socialist, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, are driving much of the energy on the left, and Trump and other Republicans have invoked the specter of socialism to animate the president’s base.
Only about one in five voters profess any fondness for socialism in opinion polls. So it’s a potent line of attack that puts Democrats on the defensive, forcing them to explain the difference between mainstream Democratic views, the more aggressive stances of Sanders and Ocasia-Cortez, and the despotic and economically ruinous systems in places like Cuba and Venezuela.
“I’m a capitalist,” O’Rourke told reporters in El Paso the day after Sanders announced his campaign. “I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market.”
Rank-and-file Democrats decry the way Republicans apparently confuse “socialism” with enthusiasm for the social safety net and and a desire to rebalance the tax code so the wealthy and corporations pay a bigger share.
On that side of the ideological divide, such judgment calls fall within a traditional range of policy options within the American system of democracy and capitalism.
“I’ve never seen Bernie as a socialist,” Brenda Klauer, 55, a special education aide, said at a recent rally in Bettendorf, Iowa, with Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who launched her bid for president on Jan. 21. Cheaper college? Health care for all? These, to Klauer, are not socialism, though she recognizes that Republicans may see it differently.
“It works well for their base. Most of our friends think Democrats are a bunch of freeloaders. We’re not,” she said.
Moments later, reporters gathered around Harris. The first question, from a local Fox TV affiliate, focused on whether her push to expand health care amounted to socialism.
“First of all,” Harris replied, “I am not a socialist.”