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Joe Biden better talk honestly with Bernie Sanders supporters about socialism

Republicans will weaponize “socialism” to win the election, but the idea of a more egalitarian society is at the heart of the middle-class promise and the Democratic agenda.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston Ahead Of SC Primary
“Talking politics with left-leaning millennials begins by acknowledging that things are not okay,” writes Peter Cunningham.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

With former Vice President Joe Biden on a path to capturing the Democratic nomination for president, he needs to talk honestly about socialism if he wants to win over Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

Let’s start with definitions.

Here in America, socialism isn’t cold-war era communism where the state runs the farms and factories, people can’t vote, and dissenters are jailed. It’s a system of government where basics like health care, education and housing are free or subsidized.

For Americans, and many other modern countries, socialism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing where a robust public sector stabilizes the economy, enables entrepreneurs to take risks, and distributes wealth.

Talking politics with left-leaning millennials begins by acknowledging that things are not okay. Where many baby boomers see climate change as an important issue to address over the coming decades, millennials see an existential crisis that can’t wait another year.

For boomers with private health insurance through their employers or Medicare, rising health costs are a problem demanding a technocratic fix. For millennials, health care is a basic human right and the Affordable Care Act falls short.

For college grads, there are mountains of debt, and for those without a degree there are low-wage gig jobs. Housing costs are way too high in cities where millennials want to live. For women and people of color, there is continuing pay inequity, not to mention outright harassment and discrimination. And economic inequality is out of control.

Mariana Oliver is the 30-year-old daughter of Latin American immigrants who grew up in Germany and Memphis. Currently earning a PhD in sociology and a law degree from Northwestern University, Oliver defines socialism as, “Government providing health care, education, and child-care. In exchange people pay higher taxes.” She is, she said, “totally uninspired by the Democratic Party. They have lost themselves and don’t know what they stand for.”

Oliver’s classmate at Northwestern, 29-year-old Luke Ferguson, studies political theory and law. He says, “I’d like to see a world that is less capitalist-friendly. We give way too many tax breaks to big corporations but that doesn’t translate into social welfare.”

When asked how to sell his brand of socialism to working families, Ferguson, a former public school teacher and union member, said, “I would ask them how much they pay for health care. I would ask if they are in debt. And I would ask them if they need a job.”

Pennsylvania-based community organizer Rafael Diaz defines socialism as, “Democracy in more aspects of our lives — government and work. The things we need to survive and thrive should be public goods, not commodities for private profit. I want to build a movement capable of making sure no one in our world goes without food, a home or healthcare. The fact that that’s often called ‘socialism’ is incidental.”

“Democrats are afraid to take a bold stance,” says Andy Molholt, a 33-year-old professional musician living in Philadelphia. He doesn’t consider himself a socialist, but he believes “capitalism is poisoning the world.”

Molholt canvassed for Barack Obama in 2008 and was thrilled with his election, but today, he’s less enthusiastic. “There were a lot of drone strikes and deportation,” he says, “but he also got gay marriage and Obamacare. I just wish the Democrats were more progressive.”

Not everyone’s version of socialism is quite so tame. Twenty-seven-year-old Matthew Wylder works in Chicago’s tech sector. He says, “Capitalism is incapable of providing what is needed for the working class.”

A member of an organization called Socialist Alternatives, Wylder thinks government should take over the 500 biggest companies in America and put the workers in charge. Senator Sanders doesn’t go quite that far, though he is proposing workers get 20 percent of the stock of the company where they work and 45 percent of the seats on the board.

Biden’s success suggests voters are not ready for Sanders’ revolution, but how different is Sanders’ socialist agenda from Biden’s middle-class agenda? They both want to raise taxes on the rich, raise wages and make housing, health care and education more affordable.

Americans are in denial about the degree of socialism in our lives and it goes far beyond Social Security, Medicare, public transit and public education. We subsidize agriculture and energy development. We fund research in countless industries from pharmaceuticals to technology. Our tax policies favor investors over wage earners. We give tax breaks to real estate developers, what Sanders calls “socialism for the rich.”

Republicans will weaponize “socialism” to win the election, but the idea of a more egalitarian society is at the heart of the middle-class promise and the Democratic agenda. For young people, in particular, their expectations for the future are not as bright as they would like, and they are tired of waiting for change.

Joe Biden needs to speak to them.

Peter Cunningham is a Chicago-based political and communications consultant.

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