Where do Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and TV pundits from Tucker Carlson to Van Jones all agree? Ask people all over the political map these days, and they will tell you that socialism is a driving force in American politics. There is a lot of talk about "democratic socialism" and the "socialism" of places like Denmark. It’s a rare sight for people otherwise so politically opposed to come together on an assessment like this. But at least in this case, they are all wrong.
This misunderstanding surely stems from incredibly loose usage of the word “socialism” in public discourse. The term has been applied to everything from Obamacare to carbon taxes to the existence of a military. Obviously there is no major common thread running through all the ideas that get the “socialist” label. So what is socialism in the first place?
Political theorists might know something about this. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy defines socialism by four major tenets: state ownership of the “means of production” and control of investment, a more equal distribution of wealth, central economic planning, and democratic election of officials who run the economy (p. 831). In short, academics understand socialism to be state, or otherwise collective, ownership and direction of the economy.
What’s important here is that socialism is not literally anything a government does. Such an understanding of the term is self-evidently absurd. If that were the case, there would be no economic systems except socialism and complete anarchy. No one seriously calls figures like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton socialists, even though they presided over government programs like the 2008 bank bailouts and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Real, honest-to-god socialists actually complain about this all the time. Chris Maisano, editor of the socialist journal Jacobin and member of the Democratic Socialists of America national political committee, wrote a helpful essay on this point responding to the idea that America is already "kind of socialist." "Socialism isn't just more government — it's about democratic ownership and control," Maisano writes. "So long as the fundamental structures of the economy remain unchanged, state action will disproportionately benefit capitalist interests at the expense of everything else."
Socialism does not mean literally anything a government does.
This much is clear: Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are not socialists. At the very least, the policies they pursue are not socialism. For his part, Bernie Sanders is always slippery when asked to define socialism, inevitably describing it with examples of various actions and systems. In a speech at Georgetown University called "Democratic Socialism in the United States," Sanders defined socialism by providing the following examples: New Deal programs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the minimum wage, protectionist trade policy, universal healthcare, campaign finance regulation, free college, infrastructure spending programs, mandatory family leave, and so on, and so on. At the same event, he reiterated his favorite examples of socialism in practice: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
Obviously, a series of policies and countries isn't a workable definition. But do the items in Bernie's speech correspond to socialism as understood by political theorists? In none of them are means of production collectively owned and managed. They have no central planning, and thus no planning officials to be democratically elected. And while they would likely result in a more equal distribution of wealth, they see no direct redistribution. In sum, Bernie's policies don't replace capitalism; they have the government spend money within capitalism. Economic production is still privately owned and directed, with the government giving citizens money to boot.
The sacred cow of universal healthcare is an illustrative example. As explained by Jacobin columnist Meagan Day, "[while democratic socialists may advocate for it,] we also know that Medicare-for-all is not socialism. It would only nationalize insurance, not the whole health care system. Doctors would remain private employees, for example, though under some plans they would be required to restructure their businesses into nonprofit entities. Democratic socialists ultimately want something more like the British National Health Service, in which everyone pays taxes to fund not just insurance but doctors and hospitals and medicine as well."
Bernie's use of the Nordic countries is particularly problematic. While Denmark, Sweden, and their Scandinavian friends have extensive welfare systems, they also have the freest markets in the world, with minimal economic regulations incredibly open trade policy. The conservative Heritage Foundation ranks Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden ahead of the United States in its Index of Economic Freedom. None of the Nordic countries have minimum wages, and the World Bank ranks them among the easiest places in the world to do business. Responding to American misconceptions, Danish prime minister Lars Rasmussen has said, "Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy." It is for these reasons that socialists really don't like the Nordic countries.
And then there's the fad of "democratic socialism." Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez both stress that they are democratic socialists, and that, somehow, democratic socialism isn't socialism socialism. Once again, American progressives (call them "fauxcialists") are using a political term without regard for how scholars and adherents have always used it.
Democratic socialism is still socialism; it is still centered around collective ownership and direction of the economy. The Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, call for social ownership just like all other socialists. They explain, "we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society ... Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible. While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives."
Democratic socialists call themselves democratic to emphasize their difference from authoritarian Marxists who come to power through violent revolution, restrict political liberties, and manage the economy undemocratically. But their preferred means don't change the end they seek, which is still the replacement of capitalism with a socially owned economy.
It is perplexing that progressives shirk a label that comfortably fits them in favor of something they are manifestly not.
What's most frustrating about the Sanders-Ocasio-Cortez flock is that there is already a term for what they believe. They don't need to warp a different word to fit their philosophy. American progressives are advocating for a specific spin on an ideology shared by major political parties in several countries around the world: social democracy.
I know, I know. "Social democracy" sounds a lot like "democratic socialism." Nevertheless, the two are distinct movements. Social democracy refers to the effort to correct for the inequality created by capitalism through government redistribution and welfare programs, while preserving the vast productive capabilities of markets and private ownership. Most European center-left parties are social democrats, in addition to Canada's New Democratic Party. It is not socialists, but social democrats who are responsible for the successful Nordic model. Democratic socialists say that social democracy is "good, but not good enough." A helpful source of information on Social Democracy is the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the think-tank arm of the German Social Democratic Party.
The progressive planks of universal healthcare and education, progressive taxation, labor protections, and social justice would all be at home among social democrats. Although Bernie & Co. have a protectionist streak that most social democrats would find off-putting, the fundamental ideas are the same.
As someone who considers himself principally a pro-growth social democrat, it perplexes me that American progressives shirk a label that comfortably fits them in favor of something they are manifestly not. Being called a "socialist" can't be politically helpful. Only a third of millennials have a positive view of the word "socialism" — and some progressives treat that as good news! Of course, all other age groups have an even worse opinion of the label. A socialist is the least likely of many categories that Americans would vote for to be president, at 47 percent, much lower than a gay candidate, a Muslim, or an atheist.
There are some socialist political parties in America, but you haven't heard of them. The most electorally successful is Socialist Alternative, which has elected a grand total of one politician: Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant. This makes Socialist Alternative 15 thousand percent less successful than the mighty Green Party, home of such political titans as Roseanne Barr, who won second place in the 2012 Green presidential primary. Those electoral masterminds only have 158 times as many elected officials as all American socialist parties combined. Aside from Socialist Alternative, there's also the Socialist Party USA, Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Communist Party USA. None of them do very well on voting day.
So American progressives could identify themselves with that crowd. And when they do, they are opening themselves up to Fox News segments about Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, all of which also call themselves democratic socialists. On the other hand, if they go with what is actually correct and call themselves social democrats, the only countries they can be confronted with are Sweden, Germany, and Canada. You mean those ones with the healthiest, richest, best educated middle classes in the world, no corruption, and IKEA? Please, sign me up.
Photo credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons