In a few days, when the three remaining Democratic candidates for president gather in South Carolina for a forum hosted by Rachel Maddow, none will be using “socialist” as a slur. One of them, of course, adopts it as a proud identifier. Bernie Sanders has not turned the Democratic Party socialist — nor even, technically speaking, joined it, choosing to remain nominally independent. But Sanders’s campaign has made socialism relevant to the national political debate for the first time since Eugene V. Debs garnered 6 percent of the vote in 1912. It is looking increasingly likely that the 2016 election will mark a historical turning point in the relationship of socialism to mainstream politics in the United States.
Much has been made of the Democratic Party’s new confidence on social issues — its sense that the America of minorities, eggheads, and secular elites has emerged as a cultural majority. Sanders has given voice to a different idea, the conviction that the party can shed its defensiveness on the role of government and evolve into a fully European-style labor party that makes no apologies for potential statist overreach. Clinton remains a shoo-in to win her party’s nomination, and when she does, Sanders may recede as a national figure. But what we are watching right now in the Democratic debates is a genuine clash of ideologies and, perhaps, a pivot in the party’s long-term development. Even in the face of likely defeat, Sanders has brought new life to an old tradition.