Democratic socialism is not the same as socialism, but they do share some core beliefs.
Sanders and NY Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are among the elected U.S. politicians who consider themselves democratic socialists.
The 2020 presidential race has introduced the term "Democratic socialist" to people who may never have heard it before the Democratic debates. But what does it mean to be a "Democratic socialist?" We'll break it down.
What is Democratic socialism?
Since the term is often misunderstood, it's simplest to start with what Democratic socialism isn't: It is not a political party. It's also not completely interchangeable with the beliefs and practices of socialism.
According to Mark A. Peters, a professor of public policy, political science, and law at UCLA, Democratic socialism is "a call for the democratically-elected to use the public sector to promote greater equality and opportunity." Those who identify as Democratic socialists believe in giving everyone the chance to find equal economic footing, and see free or low-cost health care, tuition-free public education, and universal child care as means to that end.
"Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few," the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) website states. The DSA stands for restructuring our government and the U.S. economy "so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives."
Holding major institutions, such as banks and corporations, accountable for decisions and actions that impact us, is a major theme, and so is granting workers more of a voice in executive decision-making processes. This can take the form of worker's councils, or more spots for employees on a corporation's board of directors.
What's the difference between a democratic socialist and a socialist?
Merriam-Webster principally defines socialism as "any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods."
In short, that means that in a fully socialist country, the workers—be it in a factory, a corporation, etc.—all hold a share of ownership of whatever is being produced. This can mean that workers literally own shares of their company, or maybe they're members of a board, sharing an equal say in decisions that affect every employee. In the ideal socialist scenario, all decisions are made for the good of all, with the members of society holding equal access to that nation's resources and social services. "Collective" and "cooperative" are popular buzzwords within socialist circles for this reason.
It's a "get what you give" scenario, in which everyone believes that what you receive is in direct relationship to what you've put in, labor-wise. However, in some countries, what seemed like a good idea on paper has ultimately led to tumult and power struggles when government leaders abused the economic structure to benefit themselves, instead of obeying the will of the people. Fervent believers in the virtues of capitalism also believe the lack of monetary rewards in a socialist country demotivates the worker, leading to a more lethargic economy.
Socialism's second dictionary definition, "a system of society or group living in which there is no private property," is what alarms the segment of Americans who fear it means their hard-earned money and resources could be repossessed by the state. However, Peterson maintains that "socialism has nothing to do with anything that's being discussed in current American politics."
Socialism as it's been practiced in countries like Cuba and Vietnam differs from the concept of democratic socialism. What the two belief systems do share is a central belief that the government should pay for (or at least help to pay for) what they see as basic rights for any citizen: Health care, child care, and education, in particular.
Why is democratic socialism so controversial?
It's the word "socialist" again, mostly, and the historical baggage that comes with it.
"The term 'socialism' is frightening to many people in the U.S. because for decades it was associated with the USSR, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," says Peterson. "That was dictionary socialism—actually communism, with the state assuming all powers, totalitarianism—over the public. This has nothing to do with social insurance, social democracy, or democratic socialism."
Conservative critics of Democratic socialism in the media tend to create false equivalencies between it and the brand of socialism Peterson refers to, either out of misunderstanding or an effort to leverage lingering fears in older voters who may remember the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR in the 1940s and '50s.
"What's also interesting is the extent to which the younger generations, who weren't around during the Cold War, don't have the same fears of the term," Peterson says. He's likely right: According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans said socialism "would be a good thing for the country"—an 18 percent increase from 1942. Another survey of 2,775 adults found that 61 percent of people age 18-24 preferred the word "socialism" to "capitalism." (Democratic socialism wasn't mentioned in either poll.)
"So when millennials talk about concepts like democratic socialism, we're not talking about these kinds of Red Scare boogeymen," Ocasio-Cortez told Business Insider, referring to the finger-pointing crusade that occurred during the Cold War. "We're talking about countries and systems that already exist that have already been proven to be successful in the modern world."
Critics of democratic socialism, and particularly a government-funded health care plan that would cover every citizen at low or no cost (as opposed to the current system of private, pay-out-of-pocket plans), say that it would be too pricey and lead to less competition in the health care market and higher prices all around. They also claim American's wouldn't stand for the higher tax rate likely required to pay for insurance. The number of uninsured Americans hit 13.7 percent at the end of 2018, its highest level in four years.
Moving toward a system closer to that of Nordic countries (more on that below) would certainly require a perspective shift on the part of many U.S. taxpayers. But Peterson argues that many of the social benefits Americans have relied on for decades are already based in the ideas Democratic socialists are fighting for.
"U.S. Medicare is social insurance, as is Social Security. Public education in the U.S. is financed by taxes that all pay in one form or another and is available to everyone for 'free,'" he says. "Heck, so is protection from the fire department. Those who charge the Democrats with being socialists should, if they are honest, be actively campaigning to terminate all of these forms of publicly financed services."
Is democratic socialism the same thing as social democracy?
Not quite, though democratic socialism's most prominent advocates point to the latter's success in other countries as proof that it could work in the United States.
"Social democracy is typically associated with robust, tax-financed welfare states that provide a range of inclusive government programs to promote greater equality and opportunity," Peterson explains. Those programs, he says, include universal health care, free or more financially-attainable education, child care, job training, and pensions.
But let's rewind, because it's important to unpack another word that makes some Americans nervous: The "welfare" in welfare state.
"Note that 'welfare' here means general social welfare in which all are included, not the 'public assistance for the poor' that's associated with the word welfare in the U.S.," says Peterson. Some social democracies pay for public health care and other programs with what's called social insurance.
Social insurance is, in some cases, tax-financed, meaning citizens in those countries may pay a tax rate Americans would consider high—but the counterargument is that they're not paying out of pocket for private insurance and education. Other countries, like Germany, chiefly finance their public welfare programs through payroll contributions.
Both Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have urged voters to consider the welfare state systems that have long existed in other capitalist countries as an example of something that could benefit Americans.
"I think we should look to countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people," Sanders said in the 2016 Democratic debates. When discussing her own ideas for health care for all, Ocasio-Cortez told Business Insider, "We're talking about single-payer health care that has already been successful in many different models, from Finland to Canada to the UK."
How does democratic socialism fit into capitalism?
Well, one certainly doesn't cancel out the other. Many of the social democracies that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez cite as inspiration for their economic plans—Sweden and Finland, for example—are thriving capitalist countries.
"These are decidedly capitalist economies with private ownership of property, private corporations, and fairly large numbers of wealthy entrepreneurs and families," Peterson points out.
Sanders did identify as socialist (as opposed to a Democratic socialist) way back when he was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, but even then, that role required him to help the Vermont city thrive economically—ultimately ushering in the revitalization of downtown Burlington.
"I wouldn't say we got along with the business community, but if you check my record of my eight years as mayor of Burlington, the entire city did quite well," Sanders told the Pod Save America podcast in July 2019.
Ocasio-Cortez told MSNBC's Chuck Todd that she thinks it's possible for someone to be both capitalist and a democratic socialist, while allowing that not every democratic socialist may feel that way: "It's not about government takeover. It's about, 'how much do workers have a say in your business?"
What countries are Democratic socialist?
None. The DSA's site is quick to point out that other countries have reaped the benefits of socialist parties and labor movements' work, writing that "we can learn from the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes, from Canada’s national health care system, France’s nationwide childcare program, and Nicaragua’s literacy programs."
While those countries employ ideals espoused in Democratic socialism and have active socialist parties, Nicaragua is the only one with a socialist governing party.