WASHINGTON - For much of U.S. history, socialism was a dirty word — more of a political smear than an accurate description of someone's political ideology.
Socialism typically was confused with state ownership of the means of production, communism or even totalitarian governments. Socialist Party candidates struggled to attract popular support. At the height of the socialists' popularity in 1920, Eugene V. Debs received roughly 915,000 votes in the presidential election.
But socialist ideas are increasingly popular in the United States, according to recent polls, to the point where Democratic candidates seeking their party's nomination in 2020 are embracing economic, tax and social policy platforms closely allied with the socialist cause.
"There's a nagging sense that we are being screwed here, that there are things that are not available to Americans that could be in a rich country like this," Dr. Richard D. Wolff, an economics professor and author of "Understanding Marxism," told VOA. "So that there are some people like (billionaire Amazon owner) Jeff Bezos ... and the rest of us can't figure out how to get our kids through their last semester of college."
Some 44 million Americans carry student debt, according to Wolff's estimates — a situation that an increasing number of Democrats are addressing in their campaigns.
During his 2016 presidential bid, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-identified Democratic Socialist, mobilized a generation of voters seeking progressive policies like free college tuition and universal health care.
Though he lost the Democratic nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the popularity of his policies has forced the Democratic Party to reexamine their more mainstream policies.
Even before Sanders declared his candidacy for president on Tuesday for the 2020 Democratic nomination, fellow presidential hopefuls had begun shifting further to the left with their proposals for expanded health care, tax policy and climate change.
Five of the six Senate Democrats who have announced their candidacy — Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sanders — have pledged to seek "Medicare for all," once an unthinkable proposal for many Democrats because of its seemingly prohibitive high cost. Only Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has declined to endorse the concept.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and other Republicans persistently use the term socialism to denigrate their rivals — denouncing and mocking the proposals of freshman lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a former Sanders campaign staffer.
Trump recently tweeted: "I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called 'Carbon Footprint' to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military - even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!"
"America will never be a socialist nation," Trump declared in his Feb. 5 State of the Union speech.
But despite the right's opposition to the concept, 57 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
"Definitely, Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign had a huge part in destigmatizing the word socialist," said Lial Harrison, a Philadelphia volunteer for Socialist Alternative, a nationwide chain of smaller groups that claim to "fight injustice" in local communities.
"People, regular working-class people, were like, 'I need a $15 an hour minimum wage. I need Medicare for all. I need free college. I guess I'm a socialist,'" she told VOA.
Since Trump's election in 2016, the Democratic Socialists of America, the leading national group of self-identifying socialists, boasts roughly 60,000 members, compared with just 5,000 in 2015, before Sanders' first presidential run.
Health care for all
Arguably the top issues for both self-identifying Democratic socialist voters and Democratic voters in general is universal health care.
When Sanders introduced a Medicare for All bill in 2013, he could not get a single co-sponsor. Today, a similar bill in the House, sponsored by progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington State, is expected to have over 100 signatures by the time the bill is formally introduced.
Medicare for All has become a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls to prove their commitment to progressive ideas, according to political analysts.
"Obviously it's not the same as when Bernie was running against the miserable Clintons," Bob Muehlenkamp, a 2016 Sanders delegate and co-chair of Sanders campaign in Maryland, told VOA.
"It was an easy decision for people. There are a lot of good people running," he said, referring to the large number of Democrats who have already declared their candidacy for 2020, or established exploratory committees.
But despite conservative and far-right opposition to the concept, 57 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
WATCH: As Democrats Lean Left for 2020, Trump Cries Socialism
There is little consensus among Americans about what socialism means for U.S. politics. Despite Republicans likening socialism to Stalinist Russia, the socialism proposed by left-wing candidates does not infringe on political freedoms, but instead advocates for increasing taxes on the rich to support policies such as universal health care, paying college tuition, and increasing the minimum wage.
"Young people, particularly who didn't go through the Cold War, weren't brought up fearing that there would be a nuclear bomb dropped by the evil' Russians," Wolff said.
A January Axios poll shows that Generation Z voters, those ages 18-24, actually prefer socialism (61 percent) to capitalism (41 percent). The numbers are significantly higher than the national average, of which 39 percent prefer socialism and 61 percent prefer capitalism.
"Republicans ... overused the attack on people as socialist or communist or Marxist or any of the words that are used like that ... for half a century in the United States," Wolff said. "And like everything else, it doesn't get better with age. It gets stale."
Many polls suggest support for socialist policies is higher than identification with the actual term socialism. For instance, a January Fox News poll found that 70 percent of registered voters support increasing taxes on families earning more than $10 million per year.
"I would like for everybody to have free access to health care," Adriana Ortiz, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who does not identify as a socialist, told VOA.
"When I turned 26, and I was taken off my mother's insurance, I went through craziness trying to just figure out the hospital systems, the medical system. And it got to the point where I don't even want to see a doctor," she said.