Sanders, millennials find connection in democratic socialism

For people under 30, socialism isn’t a scary word.

“I think there are a lot of people who, when they hear the word ‘socialist,’ get very, very nervous,” Bernie Sanders told reporters at a campaign stop in Iowa in October of last year.

Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, has captured the attention and support of young voters. In the South Carolina primary, Sanders won 54 percent of the votes of 17-to-29-year-olds, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 46 percent, according to CNN exit polls. He nonetheless lost the state resoundingly to Clinton on Feb. 27.

Clinton also won seven states on Super Tuesday, but in her own former home state of Arkansas, younger voters supported Sanders 59 percent, compared with Clinton’s 41 percent, according to the CBS News exit polls.

Pollsters show him consistently winning the support of young voters over Clinton.

Mackenzie Logan, 22, a senior and psychology major at the College of Charleston, said she leans toward Hillary Clinton, but said she also likes the socialist label. She says it’s not as scary “as some people think it is.”

She said she knows older people – not her parents – who are “scared by the word.” But, she adds, socialism has some attractive aspects, as does the man who is championing it on the Democratic stage. Among them, “he’s looking at helping the middle class,” she said.

Millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2004, are more often identifying with Sanders’ ideas, including his promises of free college education and health care.

“When we talk about democratic socialism, it’s not the Cold War socialism. There is a difference,” said Caleb-Michael Files, 24, a former Clinton supporter and an activist for both the People For Bernie Sanders and Millennials for Bernie Sanders. “This is people-driven.”

The millennials worry about college debt, not finding a post-graduate job and paying the bills, said Sarah Smith, 21, a senior global affairs major at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “As a millennial, I believe that we identify with what Bernie Sanders has to offer because we’ve had so much taken away from us.”

Sixty-seven percent of millennials polled by the Harvard Institute of Politics in December said Sanders’ brand of socialism would make “no difference” in a decision to vote for him. Twenty-four percent said that his socialism would make them “more likely” to vote for him, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Institute of Politics.

“It’s less about labels, more about ideas,” Della Volpe said in an interview with McClatchy.

Twenty-five percent of millennials polled said they would “definitely vote for” any socialist presidential candidate in a McClatchy-Marist poll conducted from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4, 2015.

Millennials are looking for someone to connect with, and Sanders may not “be a fresh face since he’s 74 years old, but he’s new to a lot of people,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

“The biggest reason why millennials are associating themselves with Sanders is because they feel he is the only one that is caring about the millennials’ future,” said Allen Hester, 21, of George Mason University.

Since high school Hester has been reminded, “that we (millennials) might not have Social Security one day.”

Rafael Molina, 23, a psychology major at the College of Charleston, likes the concept of socialism. His Cuban grandfather “hates the word. It’s too close to Communism.”

Sanders himself has traveled to Cuba twice, once in 1989 for eight days when he had hoped to meet former president Fidel Castro. The meeting never took place.

“Even though it is the same term, I think it does mean something different now, but Sanders has struggled to create a distinction,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Institute at Florida International University.

Sanders’ self-professed “political revolution” doesn’t seek to mirror Cuba or the Soviet Union; rather it would allow for more people to participate in politics and the economy, Duany said.

Sanders is advocating Scandinavian socialism, said Maria Svart, national director of Democratic Socialism of America, located in New York.

“Social democracy is much more democratic...,” said Svart. “Scandinavian social democracy is different from communism because communism is an economic system controlled by the government, with no freedom of speech.”

The so-called Scandinavian model focuses on control of the public economy through the government, said Samuel Goldman, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.

Sanders has said on several occasions that the American Dream lies in Denmark, a Scandinavian country.

Denmark has free higher education as well as universal healthcare, Svart said.

That dream does have a price tag. A 2014 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found Denmark is one of the highest taxed countries in the world.

Denmark relies heavily on indirect taxes such as income tax, said Alan Auerbach, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the OECD report, 62 percent of Denmark’s tax revenue came from “taxes on income, profits and capital gains.”

“I don’t think (Americans) are aware of how heavy tax burden is...,” Goldman said. “They would not like it.”

Lesley Clark contributed to this report from South Carolina.

Jess Nocera: 202-383-6022, @JessMNocera