With the recent success of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the term “socialism” has entered mainstream American political discourse in a more significant way than it has at any time since the outset of the Cold War.
Sanders, a long time Senator and former Congressman who rose to become a household name while running for president in 2016, and Ocasio-Cortez, a newly-elected Congresswoman and rising Democratic star, have both embraced the term “democratic socialism” to describe their political ideologies.
The use of the term has drawn outrage from conservative commentators, who have described it as un-American and have drawn parallels to Soviet communism and the dysfunctional government of Venezuela.
Reacting to Ocasio-Cortez’s major upset victory in July, Meghan McCain, a conservative pundit for The View and the daughter of the late Senator John McCain, described democratic socialism as “radical” and said the term “makes [her] head explode.”
“It’s dangerous … it petrifies me that this is being normalized,” she said.
But a closer look into the political agenda of self-described democratic socialists shows that the ideology is not as much of a radical departure from mainstream American liberalism as many might imagine.
What is Democratic Socialism?
First, it’s important to understand that political labels like democratic socialism are broad and can be difficult to define. Two people who both describe themselves as democratic socialists may have differing perspectives and disagreements about certain kinds of policies.
Despite their use of the term democratic socialism, Gerald Friedman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts and a former advisor to Sanders’ 2016 campaign, told The Globe Post that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are really only socialists under the broadest interpretation of the term.
According to Freedman, the basic idea of socialism is that “the community, acting collectively, should regulate the economy the way we already regulate certain parts of the economy like firefighters and public libraries.”
“It’s basically the extension of that type of community regulation or democratic control to other aspects of the economy.”
Technically, socialism and capitalism are mutually exclusive in that true socialists seek to abolish private, top-down ownership of industries, instead favoring government nationalization or democratic, communal control of companies.
“At one extreme you have government ownership of everything. That’s one type of socialism,” Friedman explained.
That model of socialism is markedly different from the ideology advocated by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, which Friedman said could actually be bettered described as “social democracy.”
“[Sanders] is a left-liberal Democrat, a New Dealer and a social democrat. If you look at his platform in 2016, basically what he wanted was to go back and revive the New Deal and complete it,” Friedman said. “It’s really on the right edge of anything people should call socialism.”
The ‘Mixed Economy’
The ideology of social democracy is essentially a hybrid between socialism and capitalism and its proponents advocate for a “mixed economy.”
The U.S. already has a mixed economy in that industries such as the postal service, public schools, the military, the police and the fire department are owned and operated by the public and provide their services to all citizens universally.
Social democrats seek to strengthen those public institutions and expand universal programs to select industries like health insurance and higher education.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are both vocal proponents of Medicare for all, a policy proposal that would guarantee all Americans healthcare as a right by replacing the private, for-profit health insurance industry with a universal, tax-payer-funded government program.
They’ve also both proposed that public colleges and universities, like K-12 public schools, be made tuition-free.
Friedman said it’s unreasonable to compare this ideology to communist states or to Venezuela, which he called “a corrupt dictatorship that has nothing to do with democratic socialism.”
Instead, he said Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s ideology is more similar to that of the British Labor Party or mainstream left-wing parties in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe which have successfully enacted universal healthcare and free higher education programs.
“Social democracy has been tried – the mixed economy – and that’s worked very well in Central Europe and Scandinavia,” he said. “All these countries with much stronger social welfare states and much more government involvement in the economy. All have had faster rates of economic growth than the U.S. … more popular happiness … longer life expectancy.”
Democratic Socialists of America
While Friedman said that those like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez can be better understood as social democrats, Ocasio-Cortez is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, a group that describes itself as the “the largest socialist organization in America.”
In theory, DSA believes in the abolition of capitalism. In practice, however, the organization is focused on industries that provide “necessities” – which the organization defines as “food, housing, quality education, healthcare [and] childcare.”
DSA is not a political party, and the organization’s 55,000 members come from a variety of perspectives, Christine Riddiough, a spokesperson for DSA told The Globe Post.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that [abolishing capitalism] is going to happen and I’m not sure that it’s something everyone in DSA would, in any case, support,” she said.
Riddiough also said that nationalizing industries is not a goal or a priority for DSA, and said that the organization is focused on organizing around more short-term, pragmatic proposals like Medicare for all, tuition-free higher education, a “Green New Deal,” and expanding public housing.
“As a society, I think we have the money to do these kinds of things, but we’re just spending it in all of the wrong places,” she said.
— DSA for Medicare for All (@dsam4a) January 1, 2019
Further, she said DSA would like to see more public-interest regulation of corporations and more “democratization” or worker control of companies.
An example of this the “Accountable Capitalism Act,” introduced in 2018 by Democratic Senator and likely 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. The bill would require that at least 40 percent of members of the board of directors of major corporations be elected by workers.
To Riddiough and other democratic socialists, proposals like Warren’s bill, Medicare for all, and a Green New Deal are all good “first steps” towards a vision of a society that better empowers working-class people and eliminates what they see as the exploitative nature of unregulated capitalism.
“Democratic socialism is part of the American tradition and we want to continue that tradition along with folks like Sanders, [Ocasio-Cortez], and others,” she said.
More on the Subject
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, a group of disaffected former Bernie Sanders campaign officials and progressive media personalities quietly formed an organization with a simple mission: to take over the Democratic Party and remold it in their own vision.
Justice Democrats, a registered Political Action Committee, was forged in January of 2017 around a vision for a new future for the Democratic Party.
Embracing their role as outsiders, Justice Democrats recruited and organized with dozens of candidates running in the 2018 midterm primaries. One of those candidates was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old latina woman from the Bronx who had been working at a New York bar before running for Congress.
On June 26, Ocasio-Cortez pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern political history, unseating ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley, who was rumored to potentially be the Democrats’ next Speaker of House.
The Globe Post spoke to Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, to discuss the future of her organization and the Democratic Party.