Since U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.) announced his campaign for the presidency, considerable attention has been paid to his avowed socialism. On the Sunday after his announcement, he appeared on ABC’s This Week, where the host, George Stephanopoulos, asked, “Is it really possible for someone who calls himself a socialist to be elected president of the United States?”
On the whole, the American electorate has a largely negative impression of socialism. According to a survey conducted by Rasmussen, 53% of respondents see socialism as a negative political label, compared to 13% who see it as a positive one.
However, among younger voters aged 18 to 29, socialism is by some accounts more popular than capitalism. A Pew survey from 2011 found that for the Millennial demographic, 49% percent had a favorable view of socialism, compared to 46% who said the same about capitalism.
In response to Stephanopoulos’ question, Sanders stood by his political allegiance to socialism – and “democratic socialism” in particular – by stating that the United States has “a lot to learn” from countries in Scandinavia.
However, Sanders’ reference to countries such as Sweden and Norway as embodying “democratic socialism” is misleading, and represents the extent to which the understanding of socialism – even among its adherents – can be muddled.
While socialism is a contentious term – open to a variety of interpretations and expressed historically in countless regional, nationalist, secular, and religious forms, a good place to start is to distinguish “democratic socialism” from “social democracy.”
Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism
Simply put, social democracy governs the relationship between citizens and the state, while democratic socialism concerns the relationship between workers in the economy.
The governments in Scandinavia practice the former, social democracy. In this relationship, citizens pay higher taxes in exchange for a variety of services, including subsidized health care, education, and other kinds of social welfare, such as child care. The cost of these services can be quite expensive. In Sweden, for instance, the highest tax rate maxes out at 56.6%.
Democratic socialism, on the other hand, pertains to how workers relate to each other in the workplace. Democratic socialists advocate for what is often called “workplace democracy,” where workers collectively manage their enterprise.
One example is a business cooperative, where employees manage each other in a democratic fashion rather than take orders in a top-down manner from a structure of hierarchical management.
Both of these forms of socialism arise out of two different responses to critiques of liberal capitalism, especially those made by Karl Marx.
The first social democrats in Europe, for instance, interpreted Marx as claiming that the primary instrument of the oppression of workers, or the proletariat, is through the mechanism of the state, which legally enforces a system of property relations and laws that benefit capitalists (those who control the means of production).
Social democrats believe that by providing essential services to all citizens, everyone is guaranteed an equality of opportunity regardless of the circumstances of their birth, compensating for the inequality caused by unequal access to capital and inherited wealth.
Democratic socialists, on the other hand, focus more on the economic dimension of Marx’s criticism. According to Marx, workers who used to collectively own the land and the means of production more generally were forced off their land in a process called “primitive accumulation,” whereby this once collectively-owned property was enclosed and appropriated.
This forced the dispossessed to seek formal employment, such as in urban factories during the incipient Industrial Revolution. As employees, this newly created class of proletarians began selling its labor to capitalists.
Marx believed that employees are economically exploited because they are not paid in full for their work, since some of the revenue they generate is transformed into profits to be used for paying the capitalist and for reinvestment.
According to democratic socialists, co-ownership and worker self-management not only reduces or eliminates exploitation, it also leads to a fairer distribution of revenue while also overcoming some of the potential flaws of the corporate model, such as costly layers of middle management and an exclusive decision-making process.
Democratic socialism seeks to restore collective control over the economy to workers in a way that resembles their shared ownership prior to the era of primitive accumulation.
In short, social democracy calls for a top-down redistribution of wealth through government spending and programs to satisfy the needs of citizens while leaving the free market to hum on. Democratic socialism calls for a bottom-up movement to empower workers through workplace democracy – power which, through class consciousness and mobilization, may or may not take a political form.
In theory and practice, both forms of socialism can not only co-exist with each other, they are also both compatible with democracy and free markets.
Many of the world’s freest democracies have social democratic features. Moreover, many nominally socialist countries are also highly capitalistic.
According to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, countries like Denmark and Finland boast economic competition, low barriers of entry for new businesses, and the relatively free movement of capital and labor. They also host large corporations with international brands (such as IKEA in Sweden and Nokia in Finland).
Likewise, democratic socialism – or workplace democracy – is also compatible with democracy and markets. In the United States, for instance, there are over 200 worker cooperatives, including entities such as Welch’s, Land O’Lakes, and Navy Federal Credit Union.
Socialism in American History
Socialism, in both name and spirit, has had a long and turbulent history in the United States, which stretches back to the time of the country’s founding.
Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet, Agrarian Justice (1797), proposed many proto-socialist policies, including progressive taxation, social security, child welfare, and a guaranteed income to stamp out poverty. He clearly articulated that it is through the state, not charity, that this vision would be achieved:
“It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pulleys, that the whole weight of misery can be removed. The plan here proposed will reach the whole. It will immediately relieve and take out of view three classes of wretchedness — blind, the lame, and the aged poor; and it will furnish the rising generation with means to prevent their becoming poor; and it will do this without deranging or interfering with any national measures.”
And President Lincoln, who was a devoted reader of Paine (and whom Marx very much admired), sounded a good deal like Marx when he wrote: “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Socialism reached its high-water mark a century ago, when labor organizer and avowed socialist Eugene Debs (who ran for president five times) earned over 900,000 votes in the election of 1912 – 6% of the popular vote in a four-way race.
As John Nichols recounts in his book on the history of socialism in America, The “S” Word, in that same year, there were also 34 socialist mayors and socialist representatives in 33 state legislatures across the country. Also, by 1912, the first socialist representative elected to Congress, Victor Berger of Wisconsin, served his first year in the U.S. House.
Socialists first fell into disrepute after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and again – despite a brief period of influence in successfully advocating for New Deal policies in the 1930s – in the earlier stages of the Cold War. During the first and second “red scares,” government officials and politicians aggressively pursued alleged communist sympathizers – feared lackeys of the Soviet Union – who were suspected of infiltrating the most powerful positions in government and culture.
Since then, few socialist politicians have taken positions in high office. For instance, in 2013, when socialist candidate Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council, it drew national attention. For the most part, socialists are happy to gain a seats wherever they can win them, such as on city school boards – that is, with the notable exception of Sen. Sanders, who has held one public office or another since 1981.
Could Americans Elect a Socialist President?
While socialism as a label is not as reputable as it once was, there are reasons to believe that some Americans might be drawn to Bernie Sanders’ message, whose political independence and opposition to the moneyed establishment and powerful interest groups could be broadly appealing to an electorate that is abandoning partisan affiliation and who feel politically impotent and voiceless.
Sanders proposes a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and mandates the public funding of elections to level the political playing field.
Substantively, many Americans could also be drawn to Sanders’ economic agenda.
According to Gallup, 63% of Americans believe that the distribution of wealth and income in the country is unfair. Sanders is especially concerned about this inequality, given that 99% of new income generated in the U.S. accrues to the top 1% of earners.
Sanders proposes breaking up the too-big-to-fail banking institutions to avoid another financial crisis. He also supports a single-payer health care system, strengthening labor unions and worker co-operatives, gradually raising the minimum wage, and a massive federal works program to create millions of jobs and stimulate demand. A number of these policies are inspired by social democratic and democratic socialist thinking.
While much of the public agrees with many of his sentiments – if not some of his proposals — whether the nation as a whole will elect a socialist who espouses them is up to the voters to decide.