Cathy Young Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

Self-avowed “democratic socialist” and Senate independent Bernie Sanders did not pull off a win in the Iowa caucuses, but the fact that he placed second in a virtual tie is an upset of recent conventional wisdom that wrote him off as a protest candidate with no chance.

A Sanders presidency seems extremely unlikely, but no longer impossible. Does this mean America is ready for a drastic lurch to the left? No matter what the outcome of the election, Sanders may deliver a profound shock to the system. And I say that as someone who has little affection for socialism.

“Socialist” is a dirty word in American politics, partly because of its linkage with Soviet-style communism. Many on the right are keeping that linkage alive. “Fear The Bern: Big Winner In Iowa Was Karl Marx,” shouted the headline on Breitbart.com in the wake of the caucus results.

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Last month, the New York Post ran an op-ed by Hoover Institution media fellow Paul Sperry asserting that Sanders is not just a progressive but a full-fledged communist who was a Soviet collaborator during the Cold War and who now advocates a Soviet-style agenda for the United States, including the complete nationalization of health care.

But that’s a dramatic exaggeration.

Independent historian and author Ron Radosh, a strong anti-communist who has written about the history of communism in America, rebuts Sperry’s claims in a Pajamas Media blog, arguing that Sanders’ affiliations were left-wing but not pro-communist. (His alleged Soviet collaboration was a “sister city” program fairly common in progressive circles.) Radosh disagrees with Sanders’ views, but believes that unfair “red-baiting” can only gain Sanders more sympathy.

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Sanders’ vision for America today falls far short of communism — to the disappointment of some on the left — and has much more in common with the social democracies of Western Europe. He does not seek to nationalize industry. His proposed national health care program is modeled on Canada far more than the former USSR.

But the path of European socialism that Sanders would have us follow, while not a Soviet-style disaster, is still the wrong choice. Europeans are finding that a welfare state grown too large is an unsustainable burden on the economy — particularly when coupled with low birthrates and large-scale immigration.

In America, many economists agree that a $15 minimum wage, a key Sanders proposal, would wreck job creation. The promise of free education at a public college or university would lead not only to soaring costs (and massive subsidies for the affluent!) but also enshrine the questionable assumption that everyone must have a college degree to be employable.

That said, Sanders’ presence on the political scene has some genuinely inspiring aspects.

He is a man of passionate beliefs, a welcome change from the politics of spin and packaging. His progressivism is the old-fashioned kind that emphasizes economic equity and humanistic values, not the fractured identity politics of race, gender, ethnicity and religion that dominate the modern cultural left. Class warfare is the wrong prescription for America. Poverty, declining economic opportunity for the working class and the lower-middle-class struggle to stay afloat are far more pressing issues than identity-based oppression. Those are the issues we should be talking about.

At a time when the status quo seems demoralizing, Sanders is the candidate who urges us to debate ideas outside the box. Agree or disagree with his solutions, such a debate can at least invigorate our civic life.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.