Bernie Sanders's self-identification as a democratic socialist is widely considered a political liability — if not in the Democratic primary, then in the unlikely event he gets to the general election. But first, people have to actually know what socialism is. And judging from the fact that, per Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, interest in the definition of "socialism" is spiking, a lot of debate watchers don't:
'Socialism' spiking off the charts @MerriamWebster. #DemDebate— Peter Sokolowski (@PeterSokolowski) October 14, 2015
The dictionary, for the record, gives a short definition of "a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies." That's obviously not what Sanders means. He believes in generous public services, like those provided in Scandinavian social democracies, but he has not called for large-scale nationalization of major industries. The first of the full definitions the dictionary provides is more precise: "Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods." Sanders's version is much closer to the "distribution of goods" end of that.
This is only a small data point suggesting that Americans are warming toward socialism. A YouGov poll from earlier this year, for example, found that 36 percent of millennials have favorable views of socialism — versus only 15 percent of seniors. As the generation that doesn't remember the Iron Curtain comes of age, the word is losing its stigma.