As someone with a fair understanding of economics and political science, I get frustrated when I hear people claiming to be socialists. If you’ve noticed the uptick in articles about socialism since Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, you can guess that I’ve spent a good deal of time sorting through the views of self-proclaimed socialists.
What I found is that most democratic socialists are not socialists at all. When you listen to democratic socialists on Reddit and Twitter, you hear various arguments in favor of universal healthcare, education, basic income, and various social safety nets. For some reason that I have not quite figured out, democratic socialists believe that these polices are unique to a socialist economy.
Let me be clear: the social policies proposed by Bernie Sanders and his supporters should be debated and considered by policymakers. However, they are not socialist. I am here to show you how the apparent rise in socialism is simply the result of inaccurate branding.
Democratic Socialists Are Socialists In Name Only
If you believe recent data, it would seem that Millennials are the socialist generation. According to a 2016 YouGov survey, 42 percent of Americans under the age of 30 responded that they are favorable of socialism.
Since Bernie Sanders identifies himself as a democratic socialist, this result isn’t terribly surprising. The word ‘socialist’ is in the name. Of course Sanders’ largest group of supporters think they like socialism.
In the United States, socialism is just branding — something to set democratic socialists apart from establishment Democrats. Democratic socialists seem to have caught on to the socialist branding, but they have not caught on to socialist polices.
Socialism and Democratic Socialism
It may be helpful to define socialism before moving forward. Socialism is an economic system where capital — the means of production — belongs to the collective society instead of capitalists. In theory, the collective (usually the state or some kind of cooperative) knows best, and they allocate production based on the needs of society.
[Note: In practice, socialism faces serious production flaws and rarely meets the preferences of consumers. The system also tends to give rise to autocrats who exploit their privileged positions as decision-makers to gain power and wealth.]
Let’s take this definition a step further. Democratic socialism uses democratic elections (and the supposed will of the people) to authorize the government to seize capital from the private sector.
Does socialism sound like anything Bernie Sanders and his democratic socialists are aiming to do? I don’t think so. Democratic socialists may need a lot of money from the private sector to feed their policies, but increasing taxes to provide social safety nets to poor communities is much different than seizing capital and centrally planning the economy.
In fact, Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All policy is a single-payer healthcare system where the private sector provides healthcare services in exchange for tax-payer dollars. That’s not socialism.
Democratic socialists are not socialists.
So What Are They?
Anyone who knows a bit about economic systems can understand that democratic socialists are not true socialists (thankfully). But what are they? Since democratic socialists really admire the Nordic states, let’s see if we can find any clues there.
At about 60 percent, Sweden has a high income tax rate. These funds are used for universal healthcare, education, and many social insurance policies. Some people might think that the Swedish economic model is socialist, but guess what — it isn’t. The economy of Sweden has a robust private sector that is guided by market forces and entrepreneurial activity driven by profit instead of central planning. Sweden and the other Nordic countries have what we call a social democracy.
A social democracy is a sort of mixed economic system where capitalism is used to achieve economic growth. A portion of the wealth created by capitalism is used to support the less privileged through a series of social policies.
This system sounds much more similar to what Bernie Sanders and his democratic socialists are aiming for in the United States. Democratic socialists are social democrats who have little to do with true economic socialism.
Why Don’t They Just Come Out As Social Democrats?
Quick disclaimer — you have now entered the territory of speculation. Until now, I’ve been talking about cut and dry facts. Now, I’d like to explore why these non-socialists are inaccurately calling themselves democratic socialists.
Some big themes in Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric are revolution and breaking from the status quo. I think this is why Bernie Sanders attracts a lot of idealistic young people who want to change the world. Young people think they can flock to Bernie Sanders and be led into a bold future of justice and equality.
If Bernie Sanders reveals that the democratic socialists are really just social democrats trying to implement policies used in other parts of the developed world, his movement loses its revolutionary vigor. The moderation of social democracy just isn’t as sexy or appealing as the move-fast-and-break-things mentality of democratic socialism. At the end of the day, politics is all about branding.
Regardless of what Bernie Sanders and his supporters choose to call themselves, I am confident in saying that socialism isn’t coming to the United States any time soon.