Democratic Socialism is pretty much what people want to believe it is, and that’s a problem. Actually, it presents several problems, beginning with the fact that it is not socialism. As beneficial as the proposals made in its name may be for our society, it is, at bottom, a rhetorical blunder that creates a hurdle those who call themselves Democratic Socialists must overcome. To some extent though, it is also a term behind which disenchanted millennial idealists and other poorly informed cynics have rallied.
The real socialists who believe government must take control of the means of production and distribution for social justice to flourish have nothing but disdain for Bernie Sanders, and those who have piled onto his bandwagon. “He is for reforming capitalism, not changing capitalism,” Stephen Durham, the 2012 presidential nominee of the Freedom Socialist Party, told Bloomberg. “He is really a lot closer in ideology to Hillary Clinton than he is to me.”
It’s worth noting that Durham seems to be among the few who understand what an oxymoron Democratic Socialism is. Social programs could be said to have been instituted by ruling monarchs who opened granaries during hard times, including the Egyptian and Roman empires. Throughout history, poor relief was however a function primarily of the church. In modern times, the national German social welfare system, begun in 1871, and finally nationalized in in the 1880s, under Otto von Bismarck, was on the authority of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The primary motivation of the state then was, ironically, a government scheme to erode working class support for socialism, and establish the superiority of the Prussian state over the churches.
So why do so many people seem to embrace the moniker? The answer may best be found in a review of Bernie Sanders’ political activism.
Albeit the sentiment has a long history, the cynicism Sanders embraced in his youth was a common phenomenon in the 1960s. Social justice, particularly racial equality, and many other factors—including the Vietnam war, and our government’s support for reactionary governments seen as bulwarks against international communism—had reached a crescendo. Youthful idealism thus widely embraced the notion that socialism offered a remedy for our national malaise. Those who embraced the socialist label did so as an in-your-face demonstration of their indignation against a government they saw as unresponsive to their priorities.
Considering the events of recent history, and mounting social imbalance in the world, it’s little wonder that today’s youth especially are again embracing Utopian visions of socialism as offering a solution to what they perceive as wrong with the country. They do so out of profound ignorance though. It’s not just that they understand neither socialism, nor capitalism. They are most profoundly oblivious to the political danger of calling the policies they favor socialism.
The long association of socialism with communism afforded the political right with a rhetorical weapon throughout the politics of social reform in the United States during the 20th Century. “Creeping socialism” became a thing, a thing that frightened a lot of people. In fact, the “Red Scare” frightened them so much that our government pursued communist purges in the 1920s and 1950s.
When FiveThirtyEight asked (rhetorically) whether socialism was still an effective political boogieman, they found that it was. While it serves the protesters’ sense of self, the suspicion of socialist sentiment has a long history. Early in our colonial period the socialists were known as Levellers. The Levellers, who sought only social equality, no more deserved the suspicion than today’s Democratic Socialists. The suspicion arose from their association with the Diggers, who sought redistribution of property, much as many today associate socialism with communism.
It’s worth noting what Bernie Sanders himself has said about the socialist label:
I’ve stayed away from calling myself a socialist, because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.
All things considered, those Democrats who embraced the Democratic Socialist label have accomplished only one thing. They rode that label into office—or nearly did so. Whether they cynically sought the vote of those whose ideals exceed their grasp of politics, or their own understanding was equally limited, they have burdened themselves with the need to explain why Democratic Socialism is a good thing to those outside their circle of supporters. Some may survive their blunder, but their success in advancing the progressive agenda will be handicapped.
From a liberal perspective, the answer is of course Democratic Socialism is a good thing, but the pragmatic answer is that it is dangerous rhetorical nonsense. Consider therefore how much more sensible it would be to use another label for the liberal agenda. Since the policies proposed promise profound economic benefits that fit within the moral framework of capitalism—as it was originally perceived by Adam Smith—it would make so much more sense in every conceivable way to call it Democratic Capitalism.