This Surprising Statistic Reflects the Influence of Bernie Sanders

January 10th 2016

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his bid for the Democratic nomination in April, he wasn't immediately taken seriously. Not only was his name recognition fairly minimal compared to well-known politician Hillary Clinton, but he also identified himself as a democratic socialist. Still, as the months passed, Sanders has managed to draw crowds to his campaign events and begin to clarify the meaning of the word behind the decades-old stigma against it.

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The best indicator of his influence throughout last year? Arguably due to the spread of Sanders' message, socialism was the most searched word of 2015 in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Between 2014 and 2015, there was an impressive 169 percent increase in searches, Mother Jones reports.

Bernie Sanders in front of a big crowd in PortlandAP Photo/Troy Wayrynen - apimages.com

Americans have a complicated relationship with the word 'socialism.'

The increased search is surprising given the turbulent history of the word in America, and is a testament to how widespread and effective Sanders' campaign and platform have become. During the Cold War, international tensions seemed to permanently and negatively influence our capitalist society's outlook on different economic systems — namely socialism.

But timing has favored Sanders and enabled him to convince Americans of the benefits of his brand of democratic socialism. Historians and economists are increasingly recognizing that the Soviet economy was just one of multiple models of socialism. Meanwhile, with the fairly recent stock market crash of 2008 viewed by many as a result of unregulated capitalism, as well as escalating student debt and a national housing affordability crisis, the idea of free public college and national healthcare is an appealing one. Current low poverty rates in European social democracies like Sweden (nine percent) and Denmark (5.4 percent) according to Vox, which Sanders frequently mentions, have probably also helped him bring attention to the possibility of socialist principles in America.

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Bernie Sanders Occupy Wall StreetAP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin - apimages.com

The present collision of these events has undoubtedly rendered American voters more receptive to his socialist message.

But despite socialism's improving reputation in the U.S., at the first Democratic primary debate in October, Sanders was immediately put on the defense when Anderson Cooper pointed out polls indicating that more than half of American voters would not vote for a socialist. But perhaps this was to Sanders' benefit, as it gave him the opportunity to provide further clarification.

What is democratic socialism?

"What Democratic socialism is about is ... that it is immoral ... that the top one-tenth of one percent in this country own almost 90 percent [of the country's wealth] ... That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top one percent," Sanders said. He spoke about healthcare, paid family leave, free public college, and other tenets of his democratic-socialist platform.

The influx of attention socialism has garnered isn't the only measure of the scope of Sanders' influence. And although pundits regularly underestimate the Vermont senator's chances, there's no denying that he has managed to bring previously less discussed economic issues to the forefront of the political dialogue. In so doing, he's arguably challenged Democratic front-runner Clinton to modify her stances, or exposed that on some issues, she isn't necessarily as progressive as she could be.

Sanders and Clinton differ on college affordability.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary ClintonCNN screenshot

For example, Sanders' tuition-free college plan versus Clinton's plan for debt-free college has sparked a national debate about student debt, the necessity of college in today's job market, and ultimately, what could be funded through raising taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and the upper-middle class, or through legalizing and taxing marijuana and decreasing military spending.

Sanders has also brought to national attention issues like the Glass-Steagall Act, which implemented regulations on Wall Street banking practices and contributed to alleviating the Great Depression, and which Clinton recently opposed reinstating. On other progressive issues like federal marijuana legalization and putting an end to the prison-industrial complex, Sanders has also opened up widespread discussions through supporting them.

Mexico marijuanaWikimedia - wikimedia.org

Fight for $15

But the escalated dialogue surrounding the fight for a $15 minimum wage might be the ultimate mark of Sanders' influence, as this issue is one he has campaigned for more notably than any other candidate.

Although Clinton supports an increased minimum wage, she has suggested that a minimum wage of $15 could cost jobs despite statistics that it would likely result in growth of the GDP. Sanders has risen as the most vocal advocate for a $15 minimum wage in a year when this particular issue seemed to dominate.

Sanders continues to be perceived as a long-shot despite his popularity with Millennials, impressive polling in early primary states, and record-breaking grassroots campaign fundraising. Polling even indicates that distrust of big money in politics is a paramount concern among voters this election cycle, and Sanders has impressed many with his refusal to be "bought" and campaigning without a Super PAC.

The next Democratic debate featuring Sanders, Clinton, and potentially Martin O'Malley, takes place on January 17 on NBC News.

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