The world is finally discovering that democratic socialism embodies ideas whose time has finally come. Let’s clear up 4 common misperceptions.
Bernie Sanders’ tour as a 2016 presidential candidate for the Democratic Party was an uphill battle, and a disappointing loss for many. Being the underdog candidate who represented honest politics, Bernie had a lot of work to do in order to rise, but he did gain significant popularity. When Bernie was finally left with no other option but to endorse Hillary, the U.S. actually saw a fair amount of former Bernie supporters shift toward Trump in a petulant, last-ditch effort to “drain the swamp” (we all know how well that worked).
Many believe that Bernie would have beat Trump. It’s also widely believed that Bernie’s popularly misunderstood alignment with democratic socialism was his downfall with many voters. For example, people over the age of fifty grew up with propaganda — or is it “fake news”? — yammering at them almost daily to associate the word “socialism” with the word “tyranny.”
“If Soviet Russia is doing it,” the logic went, “It must be a bad idea!”
For much the same reason, we decided to add “Under God” to our pledge, and therefore rewrite American history, in 1954 — in a bit of a roundabout “screw you” to the godless heathen socialists across the pond.
It might be a uniquely American talent to fight so strenuously against certain kinds of oppression only to rush gladly toward others with open arms.
Do you want to know why America’s oligarchs were so worried about the truth about socialism reaching American ears? Do you want to know why America and the UK keep trying to silence their unlikely democratic socialist underdogs — or why those same underdogs keep having an outsized influence on world politics?
It’s because the world is finally discovering that democratic socialism — or “social democracy” or “democratic capitalism” — are ideas whose time has finally come. There are manifold lies and misunderstandings about socialism circulating right now.
Let’s set the record straight with these four truths:
- Democratic Socialism Isn’t “Government Control” — It’s Governance by the People
Democratic socialists aren’t any fonder of wasteful and bloated government than libertarians or republicans are. We’re not interested in living beyond our means.
Under a government driven by profit motive, where laws are drawn with more input from corporations than from working Americans — that’s what we have right now, in case you’re not paying attention — it’s the middle class who suffers the most. Democratic socialism insists each citizen has one voice and corporations should not be confused with people when it comes to brokering and exercising political power.
Moreover, it insists that workers, and not shareholders, own the means of production. Translation? The human beings working in the steel mill — taking the risks and selling their lives one hour at a time — are the ones who must benefit chiefly from their employment and receive a majority of the profits.
Currently, CEOs and shareholders are the ones who own the apparatus of production. They own a grotesquely unbalanced share of the profits. They own the power, and they have the money to retain it.
This is the literal definition of oligarchy.
Democratic socialism provides the means for workers to assume ownership of the companies for which they work — especially if that company produces an essential product or service. Bernie toured in favor of this kind of worker-ownership platform and remains a strong supporter of unionization, which is the last, best tool we have for imposing accountability and democratic ideals at the corporate level.
Since the voting public cannot directly elect CEOs (alas) we owe it to our working class to ensure unions remain strong and accountable so they can keep corporate boardrooms accountable.
Democratic socialism can make this happen.
- Democratic Socialism Is Not the End of Private Property
Now you’re asking: “That’s all well and good — I’m in favor of the people dictating how their government spends their tax dollars and limits corporate overreach. But isn’t a socialist government going to outlaw personal wealth and private property and “spread it around” to “level the playing field”?
No. No, no, no. Absolutely not. This is the worst of the deliberate fallacies Democrats and Republicans have promulgated over the years. There is absolutely nothing about democratic socialism — practiced the way it’s practiced in the Nordic Countries as well as right back home in Good Ol’ ‘Murica — that would result in the government seizing your property or your money without your consent.
This is where the “social” part of “democratic socialism” comes from. A social government is one in which everybody has an equal say in how our money (taxes) are spent.
A moment ago, I suggested that socialism is practiced in America — and that’s absolutely true. You are a socialist, whether you know it or not.
- Democratic Socialism Is Not Communism
Democratic socialism is not communism. How do we know this? Because America is basically socialist already — and most people don’t even realize it. We use our government to balance the whims of an economy driven by capricious and greedy capitalism. We use government to provide for people to whom life has been unfair. At least, we’re supposed to be.
If you pay taxes and vote in elections, you’re willingly engaging in socialism. Don’t let anybody make it more complicated than that. It’s like this:
Taxes create and maintain the institutions and programs that benefit the public good. We’re talking about public roads, airports, bridges, national forests and parks, police departments, ambulance services, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment support, the Postal Service, subsidized lunches for poor students, assistance for farmers, and dozens of other so-called “welfare state” programs we all take for granted.
These institutions are socialist, plain and simple. We all pay, we all benefit.
It’s not hard to see how people could connect the dots between this really simple and straightforward “system of ownership” and its more punishing cousin, communism.
Indeed, socialism as practiced by the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Venezuela — though they appropriate the name freely enough — has rather little to do with “pure socialism,” if such a thing exists. In the same way America has made a mockery of democracy in recent months and years, these countries twisted socialism by introducing authoritarian tendencies. That’s not socialism as socialists understand it.
- Democratic Socialism Is Not a Power Structure — It Is a Philosophy
We name-dropped Bernie Sanders above, so here’s another name: Jeremy Corbyn. He’s the man who prevented power-mad Theresa May over in Britain from retaining the Conservative Party’s majority in Parliament.
Like Sanders, he’s another ideal figurehead for the shifting public consensus away from federal austerity unfettered capitalism and back toward government by and for the people. Like Bernie, he convinced a new wave of old and young voters alike that building a truly social democracy is not merely possible but a moral imperative — and increasingly a matter of survival, if we’re to save this planet from destruction.
And while they might call themselves socialists or democratic socialists, the truth is, there’s no such thing as “pure” socialism — or, for that matter, “pure” capitalism. These are also not power structures — they’re philosophies — and pretty simple ones, at that.
We cannot continue to believe that strong government and a strong economy — socialism and capitalism — are mutually exclusive. You might hear democratic socialism referred to as “social democracy” or even “democratic socialism.” What you call it doesn’t matter one whit — the point of all of them is to ensure that economic opportunity and political leverage are dispensed as evenly as possible across a country’s — and ideally the world’s — population.
Surprisingly, this idea is both older and more quintessentially American even than baseball or apple pie. We just have to remember.