Explainer: What you should know about Democratic Socialism
Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: What you should know about Democratic Socialism

While many left-leaning American politicians tend to avoid the labels “liberal” or “progressive,” two popular Democrats—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—proudly self-identify as a “democratic socialists.”

Here’s what you should know about democratic socialism.

What is democratic socialism?

In Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey, Donald F. Busky explains the term this way:

Democratic socialism is the wing of the socialist movement that combines a belief in a socially owned economy with that of political democracy. Sometimes simply called socialism, more often than not, the adjective democratic is added by democratic socialists to distinguish themselves from Communists who also call themselves socialists . . . democratic socialists wish to emphasize by their name that they disagree strongly with the Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism.

What type of socialist is Bernie Sanders?

Sanders refers to himself as a democratic socialist, but a more fitting term would be “New Deal socialist.”

Although Sanders frequently points to Nordic countries when explaining how socialism can work, his desire is to expand and continue the American style of socialism advocated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whether FDR should be considered a socialist is debatable, but Sanders seems to think he was—at least to some extent—and finds it commendable).

Sanders identifies FDR’s 1944 State of the Union speech as “one of the one of the most important speeches ever made by a president.” In that speech, FDR outlined what he called a “second Bill of Rights”:

We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

* The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

* The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

* The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

* The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

* The right of every family to a decent home;

* The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

* The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

* The right to a good education.

This is the foundational basis for Sanders’s political views and policy objectives: “So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.”

Sanders is also something of a economic nativist, opposing most forms of globalization, including free trade and offshore production. In 2015 he wrote on Twitter: “I’ve got a message for corporate America: if you want us to buy your products, you better start producing them here in the United States.”

Unlike most socialists from the twentieth century, though, Sanders does not advocate for the state to own the means of economic production (at least not on a broad national scale). As he has explained,

I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down. I do believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America, companies that create jobs here, rather than companies that are shutting down in America and increasing their profits by exploiting low-wage labor abroad.

While Sanders proposes to provide government assistance to “workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives,” he appears to mostly believe the best approach to social ownership is for government to regulate and redistribute economic profits both to workers and to society in a way that he deems to be “fair.”

What type of socialist is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her policy positions include:

* Medicare-for-all (i.e., a government insurer would guarantee health insurance for all state residents, eradicating private insurance in the state)
* A universal jobs guarantee (i.e., the federal government would promise to give a job to every American)
* Tuition-free college for everyone
* A federal requirement for paid family and sick leave
* Housing as a “human right”
* Abolish for-profit prisons
* End the “war on drugs”
* “Demilitarize” the police
* On immigration: protect DREAMers and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, simply the paths to citizenship, and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
* Invest in 100 percent renewable green energy
* Repeal Citizens United by constitutional amendment
* Implement a national minimum wage of $15

What is the Democratic Socialists of America?

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a non-profit activist organization, claims to be the largest socialist group in the United States.

Democratic socialists believe, according to the DSA, that the “values of liberal democracy can only be fulfilled when the economy as well as the government is democratically controlled.”

“Economic democracy means, in the most general terms, the direct ownership and/or control of much of the economic resources of society by the great majority of wage and income earners,” says the DSA.

Although DSA members want to abolish capitalism, they recognize that they “are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow.” In working toward that end, they support reforms that they believe will (1) decrease the influence of money in politics, (2) empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy, (3) restructure gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable.

Democracy, for the DSA is a “means of restructuring society.” For example, the DSA believes that all workplaces that the employees do not own—including “traditional corporations, family businesses, government, and private nonprofit”—should be unionized.

They advocate for a “shift of wealth and resources from the rich to the rest of society. As they DSA states, this will require:

massive redistribution of income from corporations and the wealthy to wage earners and the poor and the public sector, in order to provide the main source of new funds for social programs, income maintenance and infrastructure rehabilitation, and
a massive shift of public resources from the military (the main user of existing discretionary funds) to civilian uses.

DSA believes that overthrowing capitalism must include the eradication of “hierarchical systems” that lie beyond the market as well. “As a result,” notes Jeff Stein, “DSA supports the missions of Black Lives Matter, gay and lesbian rights, and environmentalism as integral parts of this broader ‘anti-capitalist’ program.”

“Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations; democratizing the political sphere to get genuine participatory democracy; democratizing the schools by challenging the hierarchical relationship between the teachers of the school and the students of the school,” said Jared Abbott, a member of DSA’s national steering committee. “Socialism is the democratization of all areas of life, including but not limited to the economy.”

What are the primary differences between New Deal Socialists and the DSA?

Sanders’s brand of New Deal socialism advocates the use of government regulation and mandatory wealth redistribution to achieve economic equity in society, while allowing businesses to be privately owned. In contrast, the DSA wants to “decommodify”—taking out of private market provision—such basic human needs as healthcare, childcare, education, transport, and housing.

Elimination of all private corporate property is also a key objective. “Socialists . . . argue that private corporate property is not only wrong, but also nonsensical,” says the DSA. “Wealth is a social creation and should be controlled by society as a whole.”

They also argue that controlling consumption is as important as controlling production: “Democratic control of consumption should be as central to the socialist vision as democratic control over production, particularly given popular mistrust that socialism would be a bureaucratic nightmare which treated people as clients rather than citizens.”

DSA members also believe it is the task of the political left to “reintroduce the values of equality and solidarity which support universal public provision through progressive taxation. And it must also advance a compelling vision of economic growth through greater democratic control over capital.”

What would America look like under a socialist economy?

According to the DSA, the government would provide everyone’s childcare, education, transport, and housing. Additionally, they add:

While the exact details of a socialist economy are open to debate, it will most likely be a mixture of democratic planning of major investments (e.g., expenditure on infrastructure, investment in natural monopolies such as telecommunications, utilities, transport) and market exchange of consumer goods. Large, concentrated industries such as energy and steel would be publicly owned and managed by worker and consumer representatives. Many consumer-goods industries would be run as cooperatives. Workers would design the division of labor within their workplaces and thus overcome the authoritarianism of the traditional capitalist firm. Economic planning would set a guiding strategy by means of fiscal and monetary policy, with the daily coordination of supply and demand left to the market. But this market would be socialized by rendering it transparent. Enterprises would be obliged to divulge information about the design, production processes, price formation, wage conditions, and environmental consequences of the goods that they make. Publicly supported collectives—consumers’ unions—would analyze this data and propose norms to govern various aspects of these practices. Information about actual production processes and proposed norms would then be disseminated via universal, publicly supported communication networks such as the Internet. This would encourage dialogue between producers and consumers over what is socially needed.


Note: My intention in this article is to summarize the positions of democratic socialism in a way that is not only fair, but that they would agree with. In order to do that I’ve attempted to use their own words as much as possible and to avoid directly stating what I find objectionable about this political perspective (I’ll save that for another day).

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).