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      Socialism: Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy. –Merriam Webster Dictionary

Large numbers of Americans are describing themselves as “berned,” that is, they are captivated by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist.

It is not as crazy as it seems. Widespread unrest and unease about the future pushes people to look for leaders outside the ordinary. Which is why Sanders, a 74-year-old socialist Democrat (technically an Independent) from Vermont, has appeal. When he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, the Washington Post lauded him as the “First Socialist Elected” to that chamber in decades.

What is shocking – at least to this great-grandson of South Dakota homesteaders – is that just prior to the Iowa caucuses, 43 percent of Iowa Democrats said they could vote for a socialist.

Could that be an accurate figure? Has the country moved that far left?

There was a time, not so long ago, when socialism was anathema to most Americans. This was the land of free enterprise, of capitalism, of making it on your own. The thought of collective ownership — of government owned and operated enterprises — was not only repugnant to most thinking Americans, but even anti-American. And yet, there it was, a finding by the Selzer & Co. poll, that 43 percent of likely Iowa voters in the Democrat February caucuses described themselves as “socialists.”

As stunning as the Selzer poll was, a new Gallup poll was even more astonishing. It reported that 47 percent of Americans would consider voting for a socialist for president if the person were well-qualified.

The Gallup poll breaks it down this way: 59 percent of Democrats would vote for a socialist candidate; Independents are evenly split; 26 percent of Republicans said they could vote for a socialist.

Are Americans losing their minds? After all, it was free enterprise, not socialism, that built America. But many voters are looking for answers, and they are skeptical of finding them in the nation’s Capitol. Even though Sanders is a Washington insider by virtue of his many years in Congress, he acts like an outsider because of his radical (if I can still say that) socialistic ideas. He would raise taxes to unprecedented levels to pay for free college, health care for all, universal child care, and a myriad of other social programs.

It’s hard to imagine Sanders winning the nod as the Democratic standard-bearer, the above poll numbers notwithstanding. And yet, it has been a political year of surprises, and there are likely more to come.

Feb. 17, 2016